Seizing the Means of Humanitarianism: A Debate on Marx and Engels’ Teachings

by awakelin on January 10, 2022


On Friday, Nov. 5, in the Ruane Center for Humanities, Dr. Robert Wyllie of Ashland University and Dr. Daniel Mahoney of Assumption College debated if Karl Marx was a humanitarian. The formal question of this public dispute was: Do the teachings of Marx and Engels in “The Communist Manifesto” advance a humane vision of individual and social flourishing? Both Wyllie and Mahoney had strong arguments. In taking the yea position, Wyllie claimed Marx’s teachings did advance a humane vision of individual and social flourishing. Mahoney, however, took the nay position, stating Marx was the opposite of humane.

The tension was high as Mahoney claimed Marx was a Machiavellian relist. He claimed that Marx aimed for a metaphysical rebellion against the human condition rather than the humanitarian aim of social justice. Another strong point was that Marx did not even believe in politics and thought politics was nothing more than something categorically determined by underlying factors such as race, class, and gender. He thought Marx viewed politics as a separate realm of everything, which according to Mahoney, is false.

Mahoney used a correlative example of how the south has many impoverished rural areas where political votes are primarily red. People often question why they would vote against the party that would be more apt to economically benefit them. He uses this as a prime example of how Marx is wrong in thinking politics doesn’t have  factors other than economics. In the rural South, factors such as race, prejudice, and religious belief could play a huge role in determining a vote. Thus, Mahoney doesn’t see Marx as egalitarian, rather a dictator who views people as masses who care only about money and labor.

Wyllie combatted these claims by first addressing Mahoney’s arguments. His overarching and powerful point was that Marx is most definitely a Humanitarian because his goals are based on empathy and compassion, two major humane ideals. Wyllie claimed because of Marx’s labor theory, philosophers can evaluate the economic worth of something. Marx thinks of labor as work and the art of the romantic genius where you make the world you live in. The Industrial Revolution alienates us from our work and labor. Wyllie used a vivid modern-day example to bring this to life. We as consumers using Amazon, and our relationship as consumers with the provider being entirely self-indulgent. We may consider our purchases to be a product of child labor, but it is easier to ignore this because of our lack of consumer/producer interaction. There is a clear void between our transactions. Marx’s labor theory is the only way to define this consumer alienation economically. To Wyllie, Marx is an empath and reflects on humanitarian ideals accordingly.

Mahoney claimed Wyllie’s response did not sound like Marx’s. Instead, it sounded more like Rousseau’s regarding the weakening power of the soul in a society that overvalues the economy. Wyllie was flattered by this response but still felt he represented Marx. This was the climax in the debate that indeed determined the outcome.

Votes were tallied, and although they were marginally close, the audience favored Mahoney’s nay position. The teachings of Marx in this disputation did not advance a humane vision of individual and social flourishing. Although this was the outcome, it is tough to deny that Marx’s ideas were based on a premise of humane ideals. Compassion and equality are things we could use more of in society.