Marx was wrong: Humiliation is the base

Tom Friedman was in Berlin this week, hosted by the American Academy, to make himself smart on Germany and to begin plugging the book he’s working on, “Thank you for being late”.

Sipping drinks on a Charlottenburg rooftop before a dinner given for him, Tom and I were talking about one of the many ideas he is pursuing in that book, which is that humiliation is the driver of events in the Middle East today. Young male Arabs in that region arguably feel more humiliated than any other group in the world today. That puts them at extra risk of drifting into the various forms of nihilism. Young Arabs in the banlieues of Paris and other European cities also feel humiliated and are also at risk.

Then Tom and I pondered whether humiliation drives human action (and thus history) more generally. The Germans after World War I felt humiliated by the “peace” the Allies imposed on them, and that humiliation, probably more than hyperinflation or depression, drove them into the arms of Hitler. Today, the Russians feel humiliated by the “peace” the West and NATO imposed on Europe 25 years ago, which appears to make them surrender willingly to the propaganda of Putin. And so on.

Just then I had an embryo of an idea and dropped it into the conversation: Marx was wrong, I said. It’s not the mode of production that is the base, with everything else being the superstructure. Instead our sense of dignity or humiliation is the base. The base is thus not materialistic but psychological.

Tom was intrigued by that half-formed thought so we met again on Saturday at the American Academy’s beautiful lake-side villa for a long talk, marred only by that day’s pollen count, which left me a red-eyed and sniffling hunk of misery. Tom wanted me to flesh out the idea. I’m hardly an expert on Marx. But we ruminated on it for a while and came up with a hypothesis along the following lines, which I would now like to test on you.

Marx was a Hegelian, ie a follower of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whom I’ve called “the archetype of the Teutonic windbag” on this blog before. Hegel thought, in his convoluted way, that history was a process that led, via many surprising turns, to a higher end state. So Marx wanted to one-up Hegel by explaining what the mechanism or driver of that historical process was, and what the end state looked like.

Marx called the driver the “base” and postulated that it was the mode of production — ie, how and by whom things are made in a given society. That thinginess is the Marxist “materialism”. (If I am wrong, you experts, please correct me in the comments.)

Everything else — ideas, thought, art, music, religion, politics, relationships — is but the “superstructure” built on top of that base. User “Alyxr” on Wikipedia depicts it thus:


In his own time, Marx thought, Europe had gone from feudalism to capitalism. A new class, the bourgeoisie, had taken over from the feudal lords as the owners of the means of production. This capitalist bourgeoisie now determined the superstructure. But as more and more of the workers on the capitalists’ payroll felt exploited (“humiliated”?), they would eventually rise up, ushering in socialism, and eventually communism. That would be the Hegelian end state.

So Marx thought that production was the deep-down driver of human action, in the way that Nietzsche thought it was power and Freud thought it was sex. But as Tom and I scanned today’s landscape, we started thinking that maybe humiliation was the more powerful driver. We see it in China, for instance, where a synthetically hyped “memory” of the humiliations by the West and Japan play a big part in driving progress.

I see it in America: Many blacks feel humiliated by cops in certain places. Prisoners feel humiliated by the reigning punishment mentality in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world and in history.

I also see it in eastern (ie, “East”) Germany, where many Ossis march in the so-called Pegida demonstrations in Dresden against foreigners. Like members of the Tea Party in America, Pegida followers tend to be middle class and middle-aged and thus objectively not at the exploited end of any mode of production. But they have a subjective sense that they were marginalized in a reunited and politically correct Germany and feel humiliated.

I think postwar Germany, given what it had just committed, recognized this primacy of humiliation in 1949 by enshrining its positive opposite, dignity, in the first article of Germany’s new constitution:

Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar.

(The dignity of every human being is inviolable.)

Despite this post’s title (which is meant to provoke), the idea is not to suggest that humiliation/dignity should become a new base, with everything else becoming its superstructure. I don’t see, for example, how humiliation (as opposed to technology) could determine the mode of production. And there are plenty of people who don’t feel humiliated but make history nonetheless. So there probably is no single base, and trying to pick one was the real error of Marx and people like him.

But the need for dignity, and the power of humiliation, nonetheless seem basic. Whenever dignity is violated (much more than when property rights are violated, for example) human beings will react. The more humiliated they feel, the stronger their reaction will be. That’s not how all of history is made. But it’s how much of history is made. And because people will always humiliate and feel humiliated, history has no end state.

Must great thinkers be “right”?

First an apple dropped, then ein Stein

First an apple dropped, then ein Stein

We left off this search for the greatest thinker by laying down one criterion: Simplicity. Now we need to examine another. Is it necessary for a thinker to be right in order to be great?

This is a tough one. The answer, as the Germans would say, is Jein–ie, both Ja and Nein, Yes and No (I guess that would be Yo in English). Let me illustrate what I mean with four examples out of many. These are people whose thought a) simplified enormous complexity and b) turned out to be wrong: Isaac Newton, Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx (whom at least one of you has nominated).

Nein (1): The case of Newton

I hardly need to make the case that Isaac Newton was one of the greatest thinkers ever. While the plague ravaged England, this twenty-something went home to the isolation of his farm, used his imagination and reason, and gave us breakthroughs in understanding (wait for it)…. calculus, light and gravity. That’s a lot for one or two years, you will agree. Only Einstein in his “miracle year” of 1905, would come close.

And yet: That same Einstein would, starting in that year, prove Newton wrong. The calculus was fine, but Einstein rocked our understanding of light and (more famously) gravity. It was far, far weirder than even Newton could have imagined.

And yet yet: Nobody, least of all Einstein, would ever entertain a notion as ridiculous as downgrading Newton’s contribution. Who cares if his ideas were incomplete, and thus wrong! Newton himself famously said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton became the giant whose shoulder Einstein stood on. It is entirely possible that we will discover that Einstein was wrong too. Would that make him any less of a thinker? Hardly.

These thinkers are great because they shed progressively more light into the darkness of our ignorance. Being right in the sense of leaping ahead over all future generations is not part of the job description.

Nein (2): the case of Plato

Alfred North Whitehead, no slouch among philosophers himself, once said that all of western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato. Why would he say such a thing?

Because Plato (or Socrates, if you believe that Plato mostly transcribed the stunning conversations of his teacher) raised pretty much every fundamental and intelligent question that mankind could ask. What is good? What is beautiful? What is just? What … is?

Once again, that is a lot. Coming up with the answers to all those questions was not part of the job description, especially since we have not figured them out yet 2,400 years later.

But Plato has been a lot luckier than, say, Marx, in that nobody ever thought to try his ideas out in practice. I think we can agree that none of us wants to live in a society such as the one in Plato’s Republic. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World comes close to it. Thank god we never “tried Plato out”.

Tell me about your mother

Tell me about your mother

Ja (1): The case of Freud

Freud gave us some beautifully profound, stirring and simple thinking. Everything has to do with sex! How refreshing, after Marx had put everything down to money, and Nietzsche to power.

Well, the trouble is that these were all oversimplifications. To quote our man Einstein again,”Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” If you make things too simple, you end up looking just plain silly.

Which is what happened to Freud, and the one to blow his cover was Carl Jung, his disciple at the time. Promise me to make the sexual theory a “bulwark”, Freud once implored Jung. “A bulwark against what?” asked Jung, disconcerted. “Against the black tide of occultism,” said Freud. Jung realized at that moment that his mentor was no longer looking for truth but power (his own). Sex is a biggie, Jung admitted, but not the only thing that matters. And so he broke with Freud. He was excommunicated from the clique, but in time found his footing and became an infinitely greater thinker (if less famous) than Freud.

Able and needy

Able and needy

Ja (2): The case of Marx

We have already pinpointed Marx’s biggest oversimplification, which was to put everything down to production, and who controls “the means of it.” Tangible wealth and its distribution matter, but they are not the only thing. And this was a tragic flaw in Marx’s thought.

There were others: His theory of value was wrong. (It’s not how much labor went into something that makes it worth what it is, but what somebody else will be prepared to pay for it.) And so on.

And, I would argue, his view of human nature was wrong: Once “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his need” becomes the law of the land, you will very quickly find the ablest people demonstrating impressive “abilities” at proving their own “need”. The entire philosophy spirals downward into a glorification of envy, which is a base, not a noble, instinct.

Still, Marx made a huge contribution to human thought, and if we had not tried him out–who knows?–we might rank him up there with Plato.


The conclusion is that being wrong must not disqualify a thinker from being nominated for the title of “greatest”. But since that title implies a certain timelessness, being right cannot be entirely irrelevant either. As it happens, the person I am leading up to, I believe, was right.

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