Karl Heinrich Marx


Karl Marx
(May 5, 1818 – March 14, 1883)


(Note – For much of this section, I am indebted to Lucio Colletti's Introduction to Marx - Early Writings , Penguin Books.)

It is not too long since the collapse of various self-styled communist governments of the Soviet block. Many Marxist critics had long before this denounced such totalitarian regimes and their ossified thought-systems as forms of state capitalism; and the Soviet Union was based on an imperialism as distinct as anything in the West. I believe that had Marx the opportunity, he would have disassociated himself from these regimes at an early stage - perceiving in his own lifetime what others expounded in his name, he had already presciently announced, "I am not a Marxist." The development of the Soviet system was also heavily influenced by Stalin's succession and the death of Trotsky. But at present, it is not the histories of such regimes that concern us, but the general intellectual scope of Marx, which, as will be shown, is such that even those opposed to his thought must to an extent, respond in terms of it, whether consciously or not. Our socially-conditioned 'common sense' is neither common to all, nor necessarily sensible. It is in fact a specific philosophical bearing, with its own specific history. Most of us assimilate this particular philosophy in our formative years without any critical reflection.

In his Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State , Marx sees the conservative and apologetic character of Hegel's philosophy as springing from its internal logic - the manner in which Hegel makes the Idea a substance and then has to show reality as merely its manifestation. This identity of being and thought, of the real and the rational, involves a double inversion or exchange. On the one hand being is reduced to thinking, the finite to the infinite: real facts are transcended, and it is denied that they have genuine reality. Hence, a particular, finite object, is not taken to be what it is, but is considered in and as its opposite (the universal, thought): it is taken to be what it is not . This is the first inversion: being is not being but thought. On the other hand reason - which holds its opposite within itself and is a unique totality - becomes an absolute, self-sufficient reality. In order to exist, this reality has to transform itself into real objects, has to (the second inversion) assume particular and corporeal form.

Hegel, says Marx, inverts the relationship between subject and predicate . The 'universal', or concept, which ought to express the predicate of some real object and so be a category or function of that object, is turned instead into an entity in its own right. By contrast, the real subject, the subjectum of the judgment (the empirical , existing world), becomes for him a manifestation or embodiment of the Idea - in other words, a predicate of the predicate, a mere means by which the Idea vests itself with reality. (This, like his system of classification [see above] connects Marx with Aristotle, who criticised Plato's theory of Ideal Forms as follows: "a material differs from a subject matter by not being a particular something: in the case of an attribute predicated of a subject matter... ...wherever this is the relation between subject and predicate, the final subject is primary being.")

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts , Marx reformulates this criticism and notes that Hegel's philosophy suffers from the double defect of being at one and the same time 'uncritical positivism' and 'equally uncritical idealism'. It is uncritical idealism because Hegel denies the empirical, sensible world and acknowledges true reality only in abstraction, in the Idea. And it is uncritical positivism because Hegel cannot help in the end restoring the empirical object world originally denied – the Idea has no other possible earthly incarnation or meaning. Hence, the argument is not simply that Hegel is too abstract, but also that his philosophy is crammed with crude and unargued empirical elements, surreptitiously inserted. This concrete content is first of all eluded and 'transcended', and then re-introduced in an underhand concealed fashion without genuine criticism.

The true importance of Marx's early criticism of Hegel lies in the key it provides for understanding Marx's criticism of the method of bourgeois economics. Thus in Chapter 2 of The Poverty of Philosophy , 'The Metaphysics of Political Economy', "Economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production." While Proudhon, on the other hand, "holding things upside down like a true philosopher, sees in actual relations nothing but the incarnation of these principles... ...What Hegel has done for religion, law, etc., Monsieur Proudhon seeks to do for political economy." First of all by dint of abstraction he reduces “the substance of everything” to mere "logical categories"; then, having hypostatised these abstractions into substances, it is not too difficult to retrace his steps and present real historical relations as the objectification, the embodiment, of such categories.

As Maurice Dobb pointed out in Chapter 5 of his Political Economy and Capitalism (1937), "In making abstraction of particular elements in a situation," he writes, "there are two roads along which one can proceed." The first is that which "builds abstraction on the exclusion of certain features which are present in any actual situation, either because they are the more variable or because they are quantitatively of lesser importance in determining the course of events. To omit them from consideration makes the resulting calculation no more than an imperfect approximation to reality, but nevertheless makes it a very much more reliable guide than if the major factors had been omitted and only the minor influences taken into account." The second is the road which bases abstraction "not on any evidence of fact as to what features in a situation are essential and what is inessential, but simply on the formal procedure of combining the properties common to a heterogeneous assortment of situations and building abstraction out of analogy."

What characterises this second method (with its indeterminate or generic abstractions, as compared to the determinate, specific ones of the first) is, Dobb says, that - "in all such abstract systems there exists the serious danger of hypostatising one's concepts", that is of "regarding the postulated relations as the determining ones in any actual situation" and so running the grave risk of "introducing, unnoticed, purely imaginary assumptions" and interpolating surreptitiously all the concrete, particular features discarded in the first place. He continues: "All too frequently the propositions which are products of this mode of abstraction have little more than formal meaning...But those who use such propositions and build corollaries upon them are seldom mindful of this limitation, and in applying them as "laws" of the real world invariably extract from them more meaning than their emptiness of real content could possibly hold."

"The examples he (Marx) cited were mainly drawn from the concepts of religion and idealist philosophy...In the realm of economic thought it is not difficult to see a parallel tendency at work. One might think it harmless enough to make abstraction of certain aspects of exchange-relations in order to analyse them in isolation from social relations of production. But what actually occurs is that once this abstraction has been made it is given an independent existence as though it represented the essence of reality, instead of one contingent facet of reality. Concepts become hypostatised; the abstraction acquires a fetishistic character, to use Marx's phrase."

What economists do, says Marx, is to substitute for the specific institutions and processes of modern economy generic or universal categories supposed to be valid for all times and places. In the 1857 introduction to the Grundrisse he states that in any scientific analysis of the capitalist mode of production: "the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity - which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature – their essential difference is not forgotten. The whole profundity of modern economists who demonstrate the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing social relations lies in this forgetting. For example. No production possible without an instrument of production, even if this instrument is only the hand. No production without stored-up, past labour, even if it is

only the facility gathered together and concentrated in the hand of the savage by repeated practice. Capital is among other things, also an instrument of production, also objectified, past labour. Therefore capital is a general, eternal relation of nature;

that is, if I leave out just the specific quality which alone makes 'instrument of production' and stored-up labour into capital."

John Stuart Mill, for example (Marx continues) typically presents 'production' as distinct from distribution etc., as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded". And this is indeed, he concludes, "the more or less conscious purpose of the whole proceeding." Logical unity takes the place of real difference, the eternal category is substituted for the historically concrete; after which, the concrete is smuggled in as a consequence and a triumphant embodiment of the universal. Economists identify wage-labour with labour in general, and so reduce the particular, specific form of modern productive work to 'labour' pure and simple, as that term is defined in any dictionary. The result is - given that 'labour' in general is , in Marx's words, "the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and Nature, the everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence" – that the light of eternity comes to be cast upon the particular historical figure of the wage-labourer. Or economists reduce capital to a mere 'instrument of production' amongst others, with the result that production becomes unthinkable without the presence of capital.

Marx's Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State develops to expose Hegelian philosophy as upside-down; it inverts reality, making predicates into subjects and real subjects into predicates. But what is upside-down is not simply Hegel's image of reality; the inversion does not originate in Hegel's philosophy itself, but in the very reality it tries to reflect.

Marx considered he had demystified Hegel's dialectic, while extracting its rational core. Following Aristotle's observation that in the relation between subject and predicate the final subject is primary being, Marx used a materialist dialectic based firmly on empirical research, in opposition to Hegel's idealism. Marx's philosophical background is more sophisticated than that of Engels, who actually used the term 'dialectical materialism' for a dialectic of nature including three basic laws of the universe. Marx's key early works were not published until well into this century, and many important scholars confused Engel's dubious philosophising with Marx's ideas. Marx's method should properly be called historical materialism, and the reader should be careful to distinguish between the two.

There follows a selection of Marx's writings, available in Karl Marx - Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy , edited by Bottomore and Rubel, beginning with the materialist conception of history:

I was led by my studies to the conclusion that legal relations as well as forms of State could neither be understood by themselves, nor explained by the so-called general progress of the human mind, but that they are rooted in the material conditions of life. (...) In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production.

The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society - the real foundation, on which legal and political superstructures arise and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or - what is but legal expression for the same thing - with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then occurs a period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations, the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophical – in short, ideological - forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out . Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such am period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must rather be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production .(italics added) No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society. Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, on closer examination, it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation. In broad outline we can designate the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeois modes of production as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production; not in the sense of individual antagonisms, but of conflict arising from conditions surrounding the life of individuals in society. At the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. With this social formation, therefore, the prehistory of human society comes to an end.
Preface, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

The social relations within which individuals produce, the social relations of production, are altered, transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, of the forces of production. The relations of production in their totality constitute what is called the social relations, society , and moreover, a society at a definite stage of historical development, a society with a unique and distinctive character. Ancient society, feudal society, bourgeois (or capitalist) society, are such totalities of relations of production, each of which denotes a particular stage of development in the history of mankind.
Wage Labour and Capital

In saying that the existing relations - the relations of bourgeois production - are natural, the economists assert that these are the relations in which wealth is created and the productive forces are developed in accordance with the laws of Nature. Consequently, these relations are themselves natural laws, independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any history. There has been history, because there were feudal institutions, and because in these institutions are to be found relations of production entirely different from those in bourgeois society, which latter none the less the economists wish to present as natural and therefore eternal.
The Poverty of Philosophy

We do not set out from what men say, imagine, or conceive, nor from what has been said, imagined or conceived of men, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We begin with real, active men, and from their real life-process show the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process. The phantoms of the human brain also are necessary sublimates of men's material life-process, which can be empirically established and which is bound to material conditions. Morality, religion, metaphysics, and other ideologies, and their corresponding forms of consciousness, no longer retain therefore their appearance of autonomous existence. They have no history, no development; it is men, who, in developing their material production and their material intercourse, change, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.
The German Ideology

The ideas of the ruling class are in every age the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that in consequence the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are, in general, subject to it. The dominant ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas, and thus of the relationships which make one class the ruling one; they are consequently the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess, among other things, consciousness, and therefore think. In so far, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the whole extent of an epoch, it is self- evident that they do this in their whole range and thus, among other things, rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age.

 Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed man's self-consciousness and self-awareness as long as he has not found his feet in the universe. But man is not an abstract being, squatting outside the world. Man is the world of men, the State, and society. This state, this society, produce religion which is an inverted world consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur , its enthusiasm, its moral sanction... ...its general basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human being inasmuch as the human being possesses no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people .(Italics added)
The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. ...The immediate task is to unmask human alienation in its secular form, now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form. Thus the criticism of heaven transforms itself into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
(Bottomore and Rubel, ibid ., pp's 41-42.)

The various stages of development in the division of labour are just so many different forms of property... The first form of property is tribal property. It corresponds to an undeveloped stage of production in which a people lives by hunting and fishing, by cattle breeding, or, at the highest stage, by agriculture. In the latter case, a large area of uncultivated land is presupposed. The division of labour is, at this stage, still very elementary, and is no more than an extension of the natural division of labour occurring within the family. The social structure, therefore, is no more than an extension of the family, with patriarchal family chiefs, members of the tribe, and finally slaves.
The second form is the communal and State property of antiquity, which results especially from the union of several tribes into a city, either by agreement or by conquest, and which is still accompanied by slavery. Alongside communal property, personal and later also real, private property is already beginning to develop, but as an abnormal form subordinate to communal property. It is only as a community that the citizens hold power over their labouring slaves, and on this account alone, therefore, they are bound to the form of communal property. This is the communal private property of the active citizens, who are forced to continue in this natural form of association in face of their slaves. For this reason, the whole structure of society based on communal property, and with it the power of the people, decays in proportion as private real property develops...
The third form is feudal or estates property. If antiquity started out from the town and its little territory, the Middle Ages started out from the country ....In contrast to Greece and Rome, therefore, feudal development begins in a much larger area, prepared by the Roman conquests and by the spread of agriculture associated with them. The last centuries of the declining Roman Empire and its conquest by the barbarians destroyed a number of productive forces; agriculture had declined, industry had decayed for lack of markets, trade had died out or been violently interrupted, and the rural and urban population had diminished. These conditions and the mode of organisation of the conquest determined by them gave rise, under the influence of the Teutonic military constitution, to feudal property. The directly producing class is not, as in the case of the ancient community, the slaves, but the enserfed small peasantry. As soon as feudalism is fully developed the opposition to the towns reappears. The hierarchical system of land ownership, and the armed bodies of retainers associated with it, gave the nobility power over the serfs. This feudal structure was, just as much as the communal property of antiquity, an association against a subject producing class, but the form of association and the relation to the direct producers was different because of the different conditions of production.
This feudal structure of land ownership had its counterpart in the towns in the form of guild property, the feudal organisation of trades. Here property consisted chiefly in the labour of each individual. The necessity for association against the organised robber nobility, the need for communal market-halls, in an age when the industrialist was at the same time a merchant.... combined to bring about the guilds . The gradually accumulated capital of individual craftsmen, and their stable numbers in an increasing population, gave rise to the relation of journeyman and apprentice, which brought into being in the towns a hierarchy similar to that in the country.
The German Ideology

The final result is (...) the abolition of the distinction between capitalist and landowner, so that broadly speaking there remain only two classes in the population, the working class and the capitalist class. This disposal of landed property and transformation of land into a commodity is the final ruin of the old aristocracy and the complete triumph of the aristocracy of money. Romanticism sheds many sentimental tears over this event, but we cannot do so... ...In the first place, feudal landed property is already essentially land which has been disposed of, alienated from men and now confronting them in the form of a few great lords.
The serf is the product of the land. The heir, the first-born son, belongs to the land. It inherits him...In the same way there is a more intimate connection between the owner and the land than is the case with possession of mere wealth. Landed property takes on an individual character with its lord, has its own status, is knightly or baronial with him, has its privileges, its jurisdiction, its political rights, etc. It appears as the organic body of its lord... ...The rule of landed property does not, therefore, appear as the direct rule of capital... ...It is a narrow kind of nationality... ...(The lord's relation to his serfs) has even an agreeable side. Finally, the lord does not try to extract the maximum profit from the estate. He rather consumes what is there, and tranquilly leaves the care of producing it to the serfs and tenant farmers. That is the aristocratic condition of land ownership which reflects a romantic Glory upon its lords.
It is inevitable that this appearance should be abolished, that land property, the root of private property, should be drawn completely into the movement of private property and become a commodity ; that the rule of the property owner should appear as the naked rule of private property, of capital, dissociated from all political colouring; that the relation between property owner and worker should be limited to the economic relationship of exploiter and exploited; that all personal relationships between the property owner and his property should cease, and the latter become purely material wealth; that in place of the honourable marriage with the land there should be a marriage of interest, and the land as well as man himself sink to the level of an object of speculation. It is inevitable that the root of landed property, sordid self-interest, should also appear in a cynical form.... Thereby, the medieval adage, nulle terre sans seigneur , is replaced with a new adage, l'argent n'pas de maitre , which expresses the complete domination of living men by dead matter.
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie developed.
The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. the East- Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development...
The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class... ...steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, modern industry, the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeoisie.
We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange.
Each step in the development was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune; here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany), there taxable 'third estate' of the monarchy (as in France); afterwards, in the period of manufacture proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general - the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of modern industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie
Communist Manifesto

Marx on Utilitarianism and social relations:
The apparent absurdity which transforms all the various interrelationships of men into the single relationship of utility, follows from the fact that in modern civil society all relationships are in practice subordinated to the single abstract relationship of money and speculation. This theory made its appearance with Hobbes and Locke, at the time of the first and second English revolutions, the first blows with which the bourgeoisie conquered political power for itself. (The French writer) Holbach represents every activity of individuals in their reciprocal intercourse, e.g. speech, love, etc., as a relation of utility and exploitation. ...In this case the relation of utility has a very definite meaning, namely that I profit when I harm someone else ( exploitation de l'homme par l'homme ). ...It is a relation determined by social conditions and this is the relation of utility. All this is actually the case for the bourgeois. Only one relationship counts for him: that of exploitation. Other relationships only count in so far as he can subsume them under this relationship... ...The material expression of this exploitation is money, which represents the value of all objects, men, and social relations...The theoretical enunciation of this consciousness of bourgeois practice, the consciousness of reciprocal exploitation as the general relationship of individuals to one another, was also a clear and bold advance, a secular enlightenment, compared with the political, patriarchal, religious and 'cosy' facade for exploitation under feudalism; a facade which corresponded with the existing form of exploitation and was systemised in particular by writers of the absolute monarchy.
The German Ideology

(Note: it is interesting to compare the exploitative morality Marx sees as stemming from Locke and Hobbes, above, regarding inter-subjectivity, with the slightly earlier views of the scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon, regarding nature. To quote Fritjov Capra: "The terms in which Bacon advocated his new empirical method of investigation were not only passionate but often outright vicious. Nature, in his view, had to be 'hounded in her wanderings', 'bound into service', and made a 'slave'. She was to be 'put in constraint', and the aim of the scientist was to 'torture nature's secrets from her'....Indeed, his view of nature as a female whose secrets have to be tortured from her with the help of mechanical devices is strongly suggestive of the widespread torture of women in the witch trials of the early seventeenth century". Fritjov Capra, "The Turning Point", Fontana Paperbacks, pp's 40-41.
One can thus perceive a consistent perversion of relation to society, women and nature, in this early capitalist ethos. Note also Marx's awareness of Nature on the following pages.)

... the value of the worker rises or falls in accordance with supply and demand, and even in a physical sense his existence , his life , was and is treated as a supply of a commodity , like any other commodity. The worker produces capital and capital produces him, which means that he produces himself; man as worker , as a commodity , is the product of this entire cycle. The human properties of man as a worker - man who is nothing more than a worker - exist only in so far as they exist for a capital which is alien to him. ...So as soon as it occurs to capital - whether from necessity or choice - he has no work, and hence no wages, and since he exists not as a man but as a worker , he might as well have himself buried, starve to death, etc.... the existence of capital is his existence, his life , for it determines the content of his life in a manner indifferent to him. ...
Production does not produce man only as a commodity , the human commodity , man in the form of a commodity ; it also produces him in the form of a mentally and physically dehumanised being... Immorality, malformation, stupidity of workers and capitalists... Its product is the self-conscious and self-acting commodity .... the human commodity...
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open, fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
The Communist Manifesto

The universality of man manifests itself in practice in that universality which makes the whole of nature his inorganic body, (1) as a direct means of life and (2) as the matter, the object and the tool of his activity. Nature is man's inorganic body , that is to say nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body , and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man's physical and mental life is linked with nature is simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.
 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

The realm of freedom only begins, in fact, where that labour which is determined by need and external purposes ceases; it is therefore, by its very nature, outside the sphere of material production proper… (which) always remains a realm of necessity.
Beyond it begins that development of human potentiality for its own sake, the true realm of freedom, which however can only flourish upon that realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its fundamental prerequisite.

Capital vol. 3

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