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Sep 23, 2012

Marx’s Materialism in Relation to Hegel and Feuerbach

All citations are from David McLellan’s “Karl Marx: Selected Writings” and refer to the following texts by Marx (and Engels):
‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ [TCH]
‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ [CHP]
‘The German Ideology’ [GI]
‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy’ [LF]
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’ [EPM]
Marx’s Materialism in Relation to Hegel and Feuerbach

One of the most significant turns taken within the corpus of Karl Marx’s work is his formation of a distinct formulation of materialism. This materialism, historical materialism, developed in reaction to his most influential philosophical predecessors Hegel and Feuerbach. Along with Engels, Marx attempted to distance himself from (a particular reading of) Hegel’s idealism and the materialism of 18th century French intellectuals and Feuerbach. The materialism that emerged preserved some kernels from these figures while breaking off in various ways that justify a proper exegesis of the movement of thought from Marx’s early, Young Hegelian, days to Engels’s Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. Marx and Engels attempt to rethink the way in which philosophy approaches the concepts of social life and by way of empirical and practical means create a system of thought that engages one to action rather than pure contemplation, alone, but also in a way which overcomes the limitations of Feuerbach’s materialism.
To begin, we should first understand how Marx and Engels saw themselves as positioned against Hegel and their depiction of German Idealism. Marx and Engels, in The German Ideology, take a well formulated aim at Hegel and the school loosely grouped as the German Idealists as having wrongly placed emphasis on the conscious, thought processes of society rather than the material conditions of that society. For Marx and Engels they set themselves to the task of overturning “the tyranny of thoughts” [GI, 176]. Why have they characterized idealism as being upside-down? For Marx and Engels it is not that we are fully determined by the way in which we think of ourselves. Instead, we are always determined by the material conditions of our sociopolitical arrangement which, in turn, has a direct effect on the way in which we formulate our consciousness. Marx and Engels write “Once men [sic] thought they drowned because of the idea of gravity.” [GI, 176] Of course, it is not the “idea” of gravity that drowns a a person but gravity, itself. Marx and Engels contrast themselves with the idealists and most notably Hegel, by understanding the material conditions from which various forms of thought have emerged throughout history as the origin of the very means of understanding history and, in affect, as a means thinking about one’s own contemporary situation. This notion is expressed somewhat poetically in The German Ideology with an image that doubles as a reflection of their views on Christianity in saying that German philosophy has descended “from heaven to earth” while their philosophy “ascends from earth the heaven.” [GI, 181]
Marx gives an empirical example of the problem he sees with the idealist approach in his early writing Toward a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Marx says contemporary Germany at the time he is writing experiences its future history in thought, in philosophy and that one cannot transcend philosophy without realizing it. Until and during the time Marx is writing he sees Germany as thinking it could realize philosophy without transcending it. I will note here that whether this holds true for the Hegel of The Elements of the Philosophy of Right is still a matter for debate. Nonetheless, this is the position Marx and Engels see themselves taking and the seeds of the materialist opposition to idealism are germinating in this identification. [TCH, 75-76] It should also be noted that Marx preserves Hegel’s dialectical philosophy (in particular his focus on historical progression) as a key methodological component even when criticizing Hegel. For example, Marx critiques the philosophy of democracy in Germany as an example of the tyranny of idealism. On the one hand, in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel argues for democracy as an idea of freedom in a sort of absolute sense yet, as Marx notes, “Monarchy [as was in place in Germany at the time] is not the truth of democracy.” [CHP, 33] Marx’s Hegelianism is apparent in the logic of following one’s premise to its end which, in every case of applying the notion to it’s material manifestation, fails by its own standards. The key difference is that Marx, unlike (his characterization of) Hegel, does not see this recognition of the internal instability as an end. In his famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach Marx makes clear that his intention is not to simply “describe history, but to change it” [TF, 173]. This change, for Marx, must first start with a redevelopment of the methods of critique, which deviates from the idealist tradition and turn, instead, to an empirical, concrete understanding of the conditions which give rise to the social instabilities via economic arrangements.
Marx goes beyond simply negating Hegelian idealism in favor of a materialist approach. What Marx and Engels see as the limit and flaw of materialism up until and through their predecessor Feuerbach is seeing this negation as a complete movement away from the idealist mode of thought. Marx and Engels attempt to posit a new materialism that, in a sort of negation of negation, to pull a phrase from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, sublates both idealism and the Feuerbachian contemplative materialism of which they were both followers of in their earlier, Young Hegelian days. To really get a sense of this we should briefly cover the break Feuerbach (thought he had) made from Hegelian idealism and proceed to further laying out the criticisms of this materialism posed by both Marx and Engels. Referring again to the first of the eleven theses on Feuerbach, Marx says “materialism, thus far, has seen the sensuous thing [reality] as merely the form of the object of contemplation not the actual material activity.” [TF, 171] That is to say, Feuerbach and his materialist predecessors failed to break from a strict, mechanical formulation. This materialism could be read as still being in the vein of idealism in that it does not begin from an empirical, “practical-critical” standpoint but, rather, simply applies the notions of consciousness to material objects. This may be what Marx and Engels have in mind when they said “consciousness can flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real…” [GI, 184] Though this quote was in reference to a criticism of idealism, it nonetheless remains significant when applied to Feuerbachian materialism because simply turning Hegel on his head was not a means of overcoming Hegel but, to quote Engels’s later “Ludwig Feuerbach”, “…the Hegelian system represents merely a materialism idealistically turned upside down in method and content.” [LF, 24] and, then, “The course of Feuerbach is that of a Hegelian…into a materialist.” [LF, 24] Engels is making the claim that Feuerbach failed to move beyond Hegel because he does not sublate Hegel through a properly dialectical means but, rather, only places himself in a binary opposition to Hegel by negating him. The conclusion to be drawn from Feuerbach seems to be a sort of either/or situation set up between idealism and materialism. His materialism is one which posits (material) human nature as a fixed, static, ahistorical essence. This position, according to Marx and Engels, cannot account for the dynamic, historical activities involving mindedness and inadequately lends an indirect continuation of the proponents of idealism as eeming to be the only alternative to this non-historical, non-dialectical materialism. What Marx and Engels attempt, with their brand of materialism, is to overcome this binary completely and pose a radical materialism which they believe can revolutionize the way in which individuals recognize themselves within the socio-political system by focusing on engaging with the activities of the world rather than encapsulate them as mere thought objects. In a sense, one could say that Marx moves beyond the question of whether materialism or idealism is the right approach by stepping back and asking whether this is even a real problem in the first place. [LF, 21] Marx and Engels posit both Hegel and Feuerbach as a binary opposition on one side of a larger binary opposition which is opposed to their own historical materialism.
What does this new materialism look like? First, it sees the consciousness of individuals as being manifestations of the opportunities and limits of the material conditions under which they are found throughout history. These conditions are the premise of what Marx and Engels refer to as ideology. That is, ideology would be the residual excess left over after a materialist critique sacrificed “…every idealist fancy which could not be brought into harmony with the facts conceived in their own and not in a fantastic connection.” [LF, 43] With this one notion Marx and Engels undermine all (mis)readings of them as being utopian imaginers of futures that cannot possibly arise. Instead, Marx and Engels are attempting to be radical realists whose task is to show that it is the capitalists who are, in fact, the utopian thinkers because they are not defining their self-consciousness on what they are doing but, rather, on what they think they are doing. Or, to put it another way, they think about the world as categorical objects without even considering how their activity of thinking and thus acting (or not acting) fits into the social fabric of the material activities of society. But we will touch more on this in a bit. The main thesis of the Marxist brand of materialism is that people make their own history whatever the outcome may be. Historical materialism asks the questions, ‘What driving forces in turn stand behind these [individual] motives?’ and ‘What are the historical causes which transform themselves into these motives int he brain of the actors?’ These are questions the old materialism of Feuerbach and those before him had not thought to ask. For Marx and Engels to expose or unmask an ideology one must realize that material conditions, even in the last instance, always determine the course of the sociopolitical process despite the thoughts in the heads of those participating in said processes. [LF, 56] Thus ideology, for Marx and Engels, relies on the ignorance of this fact and a lack of this self-realization. The Marxist historical-dielectical materialist approach is revolutionary in that it attempts to start from these conditions and expose the sociopoltical structure, and it’s internal instability, for what it is despite what we think about it.
Marx sees the most influential core of all sociopolitical activity as economic practices. As he and Engels state in The German Ideology, materialism is about uncovering what it is we are doing as an expression of ourselves through production. [GI, 177]. The material conditions of economy are those which determine the structure of our activities of production and, in turn, determines how it is we come to see ourselves. In this vein Marx and Engels force philosophy, both the idealist and classical, contemplative materialist threads, to humble itself in light of the structural power of historical economic arrangements. The premise of the Marxist materialism is that humans are not in isolation and rigidity but are empirically perceptible processes of history. Even the view of what philosophy is and how it functions must now be described from within the historical, sociopolitical structure for which it is merely an outgrowth or a component. [GI, 181] Again, Marx and Engels are leaving no room for utopianism as a source for a concept of a future arrangement but take aim at what our material conditions allow as an arrangement versus what it is we claim we value as a society (such as democracy, for example). Here, again, we see some preservation of Hegel with the conception of the self-creation of humans as a process. This process, for Marx and Engels, can only be radically altered from its material base, not from ideas alone since these very ideas are conditioned by their material, sociopolitical conditions within a frame in history. [EPM, 109]
With all this talk about the structural conditions from which forms of self-consciousness arise one may begin to question and even worry as to whether there remains any space for individuals and autonomous individuality. After all, how can a group of people conditioned by a historical moment, within an ideological veil, possibly come to know themselves for what they are and then change? To get to the core of the answer to this question and then the questions of how all this fits into Marx’s and Engels’s critique of capitalism we must understand how Marx defines human nature, itself. First, to recapitulate a thesis which holds throughout all of the quotes texts of Marx at work here, “Definite individuals, acting in definite ways, enter into social and political arrangements. We can determine these structures as they really are, materially.” [GI, 180] Marx does not give an exhausted list of predicates attached to humans or humans nature for a very precise and important reason. If we are able to view various cultures and societies throughout history and note significant changes and progressions in the economic and labor arrangements and from this recognize a direct correlation to the way in which individuals at these various moments have, in turn, conceptualized themselves, then we have an image of the individual human that is much more open and elastic than one might want to believe. Marx and Engels go on to say, “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” [GI, 181] While one may read this with a hint of pessimism, or, at least, an anti-humanist sentiment with regard to the conception of the autonomous individual as a sort of strict structuralist account of subjectivity, Marx (with his thesis that philosophy should change history) sees his approach as one which enables us to really alter our sociopolitical lives in an actual, material way rather than simply attempting to change the way we think about ourselves in hopes of this trickling down to the material conditions. In this sense Marx is not a pessimist because his system leaves the definition of the subject open to alteration with a more optimistic approach to the future of what we can become. In Hegelian terms, it makes a world of difference going from being self-transformative, social, laboring beings in ourselves to becoming such beings (in and) for ourselves.
The first of only two real characteristics of human nature attributed by Marx and Engels is shown to be the contingent and, in effect, moldable and radically alterable consciousness of individuality based on the material conditions of the social structure. From this we can begin to understand the second of these characteristics, the socially dependent nature of individuals, as such. Despite each historical arrangement differing in their various ways, Marx and Engels provide an account of these historical arrangements as nonetheless retaining the characteristic of a communal tendency with regard to the organization of the means of production. In a sense, production is always a co-operative activity and “there exists a materialist connection of men with one another, which is determined by their needs and their modes of production…” [GI, 182] For Marx and Engels no one person is an island and the history of organized labor confirms this. Another interesting remark with regard to the co-operative, communal nature of humans comes in a brief discussion of language. Marx and Engels write, “Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men [sic] exist at all.” [GI, 183] The sort of objective Spirit of social arrangements in something like the symbolic language is an example, for Marx and Engels, of the very primordial tendency toward community that exists in the history of human civilization at the material level. We can now understand the underlying premise of Marx’s and Engels’s critique of capitalism.
If humans are both communal and productive while at the same time (consciously) elastic and malleable then one can take an idea like democracy, for example, and follow a dialectical logic to its end and describe a sort of social arrangement that would give rise to the conditions which would actualize such an idea. This is what Engels means, when discussing Hegel’s ‘absolute truth’ when he says “Absolute truth is attainable if one resolved all contradictions…” and so, in negation, “absolute truth is unattainable.” [LF, 15] It is not a matter of Marx and Engels fantasizing about a world that cannot, in practice, exist. Against those characterizing these figures as utopian thinkers, Marx and Engels are simply following the internal logic of both our consciously derived ideals as well as our material conditions to their ends. On the one hand, we are not doing what we think we are doing, ideologically. On the other hand, and as the source of this conscious contradiction, our economic arrangement cannot continue in the way it has without resolving its internal contradictions. This is the importance of the Marxist materialism in contrast with both Hegel’s idealism and Feuerbach’s contemplative materialism. For Marx and Engels, both of these thinkers failed in achieving a clear understanding of the relationship between our ideas about ourselves and the social conditions which give rise to the formulation of these ideas. In a sort of proto-existentialist guise one could say that it is not the devotion to what we think is ourselves that is our actual existence but the material acts that we engage in, socially, that define who we are historically. The revolutionary component of Marx’s materialism is the recognition that we have the ability to radically change ourselves if we can grasp our material conditions without our ideological fantasies and take hold of these conditions in a way that alters the space in which we develop ourselves as conscious human beings. Nonetheless, this overcoming of our situation, according to Marx and Engels, does not rely, necessarily, on our having grasped where we are or where we are going in order to be actualized.

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