Volume 16, 2008
“Forerunner of Socialism” or “Genius of Bourgeois Stupidity”?
Marx and Engels on Bentham’s Utilitarianism
From the early 1840s on, Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian doctrine aroused the joint interest of Marx and Engels, who saw the English philosopher as one of the forerunners of socialism. Later, however, in the various editions (German, French, English) of Book 1 of Capital (1867/90), Bentham would be sarcastically branded by Marx as a “genius of bourgeois stupidity”. In their youth, both Engels and Marx had independently become interested in Bentham’s ideas, admiring some social-ethical themes, seen as heralding interesting developments for the cause of the proletariat. On Engels’s suggestion, Marx included Bentham’s name, alongside those of the major 18th–19th century English and French exponents of protosocialism, in a planned Library of the most outstanding foreign socialist writers (1845), which however remained only a draft. From his first stay in England (1842/44), the young Engels had embraced in particular the famous utilitarian principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” advocated by Bentham. Marx, on the other hand, after initially praising Bentham’s work, which he had read in a French translation during his exile in Paris (1844), harshly criticized the ambiguous implications of this principle. In fact, he believed that
behind a misleading progressive façade, it constituted the philosophical equivalent of the later economic theory of labour productivity propounded by D. Ricardo in opposition to the theory of its mere quantitative extension put forward by A. Smith. In the London Manuscripts (1861/63) Marx will reveal the affinity between
Bentham’s principle of the happpiness of the greatest number of people, and Ricardo’s assumption of the ineliminable misery of the minority condemned to productive labour. Based on the collection of Marx’s and Engels’s texts (letters, drafts, notebooks, manuscripts, printed works), made available today thanks to the critical edition by MEGA1, this paper sets out to re-examine, im großen und ganzen, the main moments in their critique of Bentham’s Utilitarianism.