Kant as a problem for Marxism

The relation between the thought of Immanuel Kant and the Marxist movement has been a distinctly problematic one. Kant, as the founder of the German idealist school, was recognised by Marx as one important precursor of his own theory in a general sense. But his understanding of any specific importance in Kantian thought – while insightful in general (1) – at times betrayed an astonishingly harsh dismissal. In the German Ideology, the writing where he came to terms with his ‘philosophical conscience’, while sensing quite correctly that the heart of Kant is his Critique of Practical Reason not, as traditionally thought, the Critique of Pure Reason, he nonetheless treats Kant merely as the theoretical representative for:

…the impotence, depression and wretchedness of the German burghers, whose petty interests were never capable of developing into the common national interests of a class and who were, therefore, constantly exploited by the bourgeois of all other nations. (2)

In common with this interpretation, therefore, he understands Kant as relegating the resolution of a conflict between the individual and society, to the world beyond.

Basically, though, Marx had very little to say about Kant. Lucio Colletti, who has recently tried to reconstruct the theoretical relationship between the two (3), has had to do it by way of Marx’s critique of Hegel; suggesting from the results of the critique that Marx ends up facing certain Kantian problems. But he does not claim explicit reference of these problems to Kant.

This blindness on the part of Marx is not common. He was usually quick to grant recognition to important, or even minor forbears (4). One might be tempted either to join Marx in dismissing Kant as a theoretician, or to conclude with Kant himself that: ‘I am a century too early with my works; it will be a hundred years before they are properly understood.’ Neither would help in grasping what are the essential elements in Kant’s thought, so that we can know whether the appearance of Kantianism in the Marxist tradition must always be a signal for political worries (as has often appeared to be the case in the past).

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