Karl Heinrich Marx
MARX'S HISTORICAL MATERIALISM
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.