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Karl Marx as a Conservative Thinker

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According to a long-standing conservative critique, the proponents of fundamental or revolutionary social change necessarily fail by sacrificing the organic complexity of society and the individual upon a procrustean bed of dogmatic and rigid universal principles. I will argue that Marx's concept of proletarian self-emancipation is not only compatible with this conservative critique but is appropriately understood as a variant of it. The self-emancipation of the working class is the core of Marx's critique of the Utopian socialists, for whom socialism is the instantiation of universal ideals rather than the product of class struggle. This critique should be construed, not as a theoretical promissory note for the realisation of these ideals through the agency of the workers, but as a criticism of the very project of founding political ethics on the basis of universal ideals. Marx's political thought bears a structural similarity to conservative thought in that each seeks to ground its political programme upon the study of society as it actually exists, rather than upon a vision of human nature considered apart from society. If Marx's critique of Utopian socialism holds water, the intellectual roots of Stalinist authoritarianism may be traced, not to the failure of Marx fully to outline the ideal communist society, but to the assimilation of elements of his thought to the Utopian style and tradition of political thought. There should be no surprise, therefore, when attempts to transcend Stalinism by basing radical politics upon sanitised versions of a socialist Utopia or socialist renditions of such universal liberal principles as human rights prove counter-productive.


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