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Sentiment and Sympathy in Marxist Rhetoric

Sentiment and Sympathy in Marxist Rhetoric

In his Treatise of Human Nature Hume says that reason alone cannot motivate us to do something, but our passions can. What he means is that our feelings and our moral valuations influence what we think and what we do. He also says that as part of our human nature there are some feelings that are more valuable than others. Sympathy is one of these. Both Hume and Adam Smith claim that sympathy is the root of all moral motivation; that it is the prime mover of actions; that it is the value most enrooted in our human nature. Sympathy brings our desire for other values such as equality and justice, making these also a natural human desire.

Marx was able to understand Hume’s ideas, how sympathy worked, and how “the emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence.”[1] He put these ideas into practice, making them one of the pillars of his ideology and the center of his communist rhetoric. Marx understood that people have a natural urge to see the world better off, and he used the idea of justice and equality to appeal to that need.

Marx expanded his ideology and reached for people’s feelings through his political rhetoric. Communist propaganda, books, and speeches all serve to stir emotions in people, and call forth the human desire to live in a better world. This rhetoric paints the world we live in today as one that allows “people to be born into conditions of harsh deprivation, which crush their prospects for leading a decent life, while others are well provided for from birth.”[2] And then continues by promising a world in which there will be no inequality – no social classes, no advantages, and no suffering.

 Marx understood how sympathy worked.share quote on Twitter

Communist rhetoric is made to be compelling. But is it compelling to everyone?

Communist rhetoric is not universal, it is directed only to a certain group – the proletariat. Marx’s speech and ideas are shaped only around the needs of the working class. One doesn’t have to wonder what a factory owner, for example, would make of Marx’s call for universal, armed revolution against the bourgeoisie. In the Manifesto we are told that, “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into his paid wage laborers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation;”[3] such rhetoric, while powerful and enticing, forces society into two groups – the oppressor and the oppressed.

Communist rhetoric exhorts action among the oppressed, urging revolution. However, it is in the revolution that we see the promise of equality start to break down. The revolution brings inequality, even death, to all of those that are not proletariat. The rhetoric of equality and justice and the actions recommended by the rhetoric are in fact opposed to the justice and the equality that our human nature calls for, making communists’ political program contrary to the justice and equality they promise. In the end, workers do not actually “have nothing to lose but their chains,”[4] but rather must sacrifice the purported desire to justice that impelled them to action in the first place.

[1] Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891

[2] Thomas Nagel, Equality and Partiality Oxford, 1991, p.64

[3] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848

[4] Karl Marx, The Communist Menifesto 1848