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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


MARX

(1818 — 1883)

 

DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM

Karl Marx was born in Trier, Germany. His parents were Jewish converts to Lutheranism. He studied law at Bonn University, philosophy and history at Berlin, and philosophy at Jena, gaining his doctorate in 1841. As a known atheist he was unable to pursue an academic career, so he entered journalism and soon became a newspaper editor. When the paper was closed down in 1843 he went to Paris, where he met Friedrich Engels who was to become his lifelong collaborator. He was successively expelled from Paris, Brussels, Paris again, and then Cologne, but he finally settled in London in 1849. Throughout this time he studied economics, became deeply involved with labour movements, and wrote extensively on political, economic, and social issues. Although helped by Engels, he and his family experienced considerable hardship and illness.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF MAN AND NATURE/ POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[1] [See The German Ideology, I A.] Marx objected to Hegel's subordination of the concrete, living individual to abstract conceptualization [a]. However, he differed in his analysis of religion, which, in his early writings, he saw as alienating man. God is regarded as a human creation and as a projection which then stands against as supposedly 'weak and sinful' man [b]. Marx rejected also the identification by the 'right' Hegelians of Hegel's rational state with contemporary Prussia. Both the State and the Christian religion are viewed by Marx and the 'left' Hegelians as imperfect and thus far irrational; there is an inherent tension between the individual and the state and between man and his religious beliefs. The task of philosophy for Marx, therefore, is to push Hegel's philosophy further so that such conflicts might be overcome and a perfect, rational world be achieved for man. Thought is inseparable from action — which means social revolution. As he says, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it" [Theses on Feuerbach, XI]. Such a social revolution will enable man to overcome the alienation from the products of his manual labour (brought about because ownership of them has been denied to him) [c].

[2] [gen 2] Central to Marx's account is a view of history which is both materialist and dialectical [see especially The German Ideology, I A, 2-4]. He is a materialist in the sense that he rejects the idealist view that Nature (and therefore the historical process) is the unconscious external manifestation of Spirit or the Absolute. Nature, not the Idea or Logos, is the primary reality. Likewise philosophy and values must be grounded in analysis of concrete historical situations; he rejects all a priori metaphysical speculation (and, of course, implicitly such a notion that individuals possess an immortal spiritual 'soul'). The historical process of Nature is dialectical and is reflected in the dialectical movement of human thought [a]. Marx stresses the interdependence of man and Nature. It exists for him in so far as (a) he differentiates himself from it, and (b) it provides the means for satisfying man's needs through his productive activity in work. This, however, presupposes that man is a social being. He relates therefore not only to Nature but also to other men. Indeed, it is only in their social and political relationships or intercourse (Verkehr), grounded in material activity, that individuals can be genuinely defined as 'free' and 'real' [b]. The nature of individuals, he says, depends on the material conditions determining what they produce; what they are coincides with their production. Together, Nature, as the means of production, and man's relations to others constitute a dynamic process of history. In both Nature and in human history the processes of change are dialectical in the sense that underlying them are laws of movement which involve progressive transformations of opposites, "negations of negations", and so on. A seed, for example, is 'negated' when it forms a shoot; the new plant is itself 'negated' when it in turn produces seeds. Human (scientific) knowledge, reflecting these processes, does not, however, attain to any final or absolute view [c]; it must always be open to revision or development.

Dialectical materialism can now be applied to man's economic, social, and cultural life in general [ibid., I B]. Marx distinguishes between (a) the material forces of production, and (b) productive relations. By the former he means not only the material things needed to make something but also both 'forces of nature' and groups of men themselves — the proletariat, in so far as their working together contributes to production. By productive relations he means the social relations that obtain between the collaborators. Productive relations depend on productive forces; and the two combined make up the economic substructure. The economic substructure 'conditions' the superstructure — the "social, political and mental life-process in general", which comprise laws, ethics, religion, and so on. Life, Marx says, is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life [d] [German Ideology, I A], that is, by the "social being" of humans. However, he seems to accept that there is a two-way process at work here, in that human ideas, especially of religion and ideologies, can in turn have a role to play in channelling or modifying human action; and can thereby affect the economic substructure. But the primacy of the latter is never denied. At a particular stage in their development a society's productive forces come to 'contradict' existing productive relations. The conflict can be resolved only through a qualitative change in the economic substructure (and hence in the cultural superstructure). We thus have what Marx calls the class struggle or war. He identifies four such stages [ibid. I C and D].

(1) Primitive communism. A tribe as a whole owns and works the land. But with the introduction of private property there is class division, especially between rich and poor.

(2) The ancient period. The rich acquire slaves through war. This leads to class conflict between the slaves and the freemen.

(3) The feudal (mediaeval) epoch came into being as a result of a decline in agriculture and industry, and the rise of German militarism. Various conflicts now arise — between barons and serfs, the directly producing class of property owners and the small peasantry (in the countryside) or journeymen and casual labourers (in the towns).

(4) The capitalist society — resulting from the overthrow of the guild system and the industrial revolution. By its very nature, the system is exploitational, in that the worker — the means of production — does not own what he produces (regardless of wages or working conditions). Class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat ensues. The latter must therefore become a revolutionary class to overthrow the former so as to establish the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and lead to a genuinely communist society in which all property and class divisions will have been abolished [e]. The revolutionary class is thus "the greatest of all productive forces". [See also Communist Manifesto and Capital.]

At the philosophical level, Marx also suggests that it is through the dialectical process that man can 'realize' himself (objectified in his labour rather than 'pure' thought). If self-alienation in the social-economic sphere is overcome, so too will religious alienation; and man will overcome division within himself and achieve 'wholeness' — his true self. Marx thus sees his system as providing a basis for an ethic which is not grounded in eternal laws or ideal a priori categories [f].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Although most communist regimes had been 'deconstructed' by the end of the twentieth century, the Marxist ideology to which they all in one form or another subscribed remains as an autonomous philosophical 'world-view', and deserves as much — or as little — critical respect as other philosophical systems. And it should be judged by the usual philosophical standards, though the fact that in practice it seems to have been so often unsuccessful might also suggest there is something wrong with the dialectic. The general framework of Marx's philosophy is of course Hegelian. (It should also be noted that the application of the 'necessary' dialectic to material nature was largely the work of Engels.) But there are several key differences: (1) Marx's interpretation of consciousness as the superstructure grounded in an economic infrastructure; (2) his substitution of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and the 'withering away of the state' for Hegel's realization by reason of the 'Idea'; (3) the subordination of thought to action, the aim of philosophy being seen as to change the world rather than to interpret it. Not surprisingly, there are many difficulties with his philosophy.

(1) As with most ideologies, Marxism has spawned a multitude of 'orthodoxies', heresies, and 'deviant' intepretations. (Marx would probably have felt much the same about these as Jesus would have done about the proliferation of Christian sects.) For the greater part of this century there has been a fundamental disagreement among Marxists as to how the Master's thesis should be interpreted. So-called 'orthodox' thinkers and revolutionaries — Lenin, Stalin, Mao, for example, have generally understood his social and political philosophy in terms of a scientific materialism. This is probably a consequence of the influence of his collaborator Engels. However, from the 1920s onwards, philosophers of the 'Frankfurt School' — Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse, all following Georg Lukacs — set out to rediscover the more 'humanist', 'material idealist', anti-positivist Hegelian Marx, which would be both more flexible, more self-critical that the strict orthodoxy prevailing in the Soviet Union. Their efforts were facilitated by the belated publication of Marx's German Ideology in 1932. (The 'revisionists' also include Sartre; and more recently the aims of the Frankfurt founders have been revitalized by the work of Habermas.)

(2) Despite Marx's own claims, dialectical materialism is a 'metaphysical' thesis and as such open to the same objections as apply to Hegel's philosophy (an esoteric concept of contradiction, difficulty in applying the dialectic to concrete experience, and so on). Moreover, it is unverifiable and therefore (on the basis of Popper's thesis) not scientific.

(3) Consciousness is supposed to have arisen out of the dialectic process. But it has been argued that Marx's treatment of this is inadequate (though it is doubtful whether present day biologically based theories have been any more successful in dealing with the 'first person' or subjective element).

(4) As in other dialectical and positivist philosophies, there is a tension between the supposed 'inevitability' of the process and the role of the 'free' individual in bringing about the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and the elimination of the class system. Marx might say that human activity is the dialectic in action: but clearly the debate does not stop at this point.

 

READING

Marx: 'Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie' (1844) ('Introduction to the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of the Right'); Die deutsche Ideologie (1845-6, published 1932) (The German Ideology); (with Engels) Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1847) (The Communist Manifesto); Das Kapital (vol. 1, 1867; vols 2-3, 1885 & 1894) (trans. as Capital: A Critique of Political Economy). See Karl Marx: Selected Writings (2nd edn) ed. D. McLellan. There is a Penguin edition of Capital (vol. 1, ed. E. Mandel & B. Fowkes; vol 2, ed. E. Mandel & D. Fernbach); and there is an abridged version (World's Classics).

Studies:

Introductory

I. Berlin, Karl Marx: his Life and Environment, 4th edn.

D. McLellan, Marx.

P. Singer, Marx.

T. Sowell, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics.

More advanced

H. P. Adams, Karl Marx in his Earlier Writings.

S. Hook, From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx.

H. B. Mayo, Introduction to Marxist Theory.

D. McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought

K. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, vol. 2: Hegel and Marx.

Collection of essays

T. Carver, (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Marx.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Marx

 

[1a] Criticism of subordination of concrete individual to universal

   Hegel

   Kierkegaard

[1c]

[1a]

 

[1b] Religion alienates; God as creation and projection by man

   Hegel

   Sartre

[7c 8c]

[3b]

 

[1c] Thought and action inseparable → social revolution to overcome man's alienation from products of labour

   Hegel

   Comte

Sartre

Merleau-Ponty

Habermas

[6a]

[1d]

[6d e]

[6a]

[2a]

 

[sec. 2] General rejection (as pseudo-science) Popper [1d]

 

[2a] Nature as primary reality — dialectical and material historical process reflected in human thought; not idealist manifestation of Absolute Spirit; implicit rejection of the 'soul' (and immortality)

   Hegel

Popper

Sartre

Merleau-Ponty

Ricoeur

Habermas

[5a 5b 9a]

[3a]

[6b e f]

[6a]

[1c]

[2a]

 

[2b] Interdependence of man and nature, and man as a social being; individuals definable as 'free' and 'real' only through social intercourse

   Hegel

   Spencer

Sartre

Merleau-Ponty

Habermas

[5e 7a b]

[2b]

[6c]

[6a]

[2c]

 

[2c] Human knowledge ('scientific', reflecting dialectical historical process) never final or absolute    Hegel [9a]

 

[2d] Economic infrastructure conditions superstructure (social, political, mental life- processes); consciousness determined by 'life'

   Hegel

Scheler

Habermas

[7a]

[4c]

[2c]

 

[2e] Conflict between productive forces and relations; class-struggle but property and class-division will be abolished in 'dictatorship of proletariat

   Rousseau

   Fichte

   Hegel

   Spencer

Popper

[1e]

[4c d]

[7a 7d]

[3b]

[3c]

 

[2f; cf 2a b] Man (objectified through labour) 'realizes' himself in the material dialectical process; basis for a non-a priori ethics without 'eternal laws' or idea categories

   Locke

   Hegel

   Sartre

Merleau-Ponty

Habermas

[4c]

[sec. 6]

[6c]

[6a]

[4a]