The Anti-radical Classicism of Karl Marx's Dissertation

In Mathura Umachandran & Marchella Ward (eds.), Critical Ancient World Studies: The Case for Forgetting Classics. Oxfordshire: Routledge. pp. 234-251 (2023)
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This chapter situates Karl Marx’s dissertation The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature (1841) within his intellectual biography. It explores the role of a German ideal known as Bildung, translated as “education”, “cultivation” or “culture”, within Marx’s classical education in the Gymnasium and the dissertation itself. Both Wilhelm von Humboldt, who reformed the Gymnasium curriculum prior to Marx’s attendance, and philosopher G.W.F. Hegel have classically inspired notions of Bildung. Each presents the white European man as the model for this “education” or “cultivation”. This chapter argues that the dissertation assimilates Epicurus and his atom into this Eurocentric paradigm, with Marx taking for granted his predecessors’ racist teleology of history and applying their conception of the individual to the atom. Then, it addresses the dissertation’s influence in the development of historical materialism, a facet of Marxism already critiqued for its Eurocentrism. This chapter concludes by showing how non-White and non-Western Marxists have updated Marxist thought through constant critique of its Eurocentrism instead of abandoning its revolutionary vision. It suggests that Marxism is relevant to scholars of antiquity not because of the dissertation but the tradition’s self-interrogation of its foundational ideas and persistent focus on improving the conditions of the marginalised.

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