Based on a talk at Marxism 85.
From Socialist Review, No.81, November 1986, pp.17-20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
MARX was born in 1818 in Trier, a sleepy little market town on the Moselle noted mainly for its Roman ruins and its claim to have more churches than any other place of its size in Germany.
By 1818 the industrial revolution was well under way in Britain. Steam power, new machinery, new classes and new conflicts were creating a new world. The Combination Acts, which outlawed unions, had been in force for nearly two decades. Luddism (machinery breaking) and the savage hangings inflicted on Luddites were in the recent past.
In Marx’s first year came the Peterloo massacre and the ‘Six Acts’ aimed at suppressing all working class political action. Robert Owen’s New View of Society, the first utopian socialist tract in English, had been out for several years.
None of this created a ripple in Trier. In the years when Marx was growing up, the place slept in near-medieval torpor. And, with some exaggeration, the same could be said of the German speaking world as a whole. The states of the German Confederation were backward, economically and politically.
This fact is important. It determined the specific and peculiar path by which Marx arrived at his mature outlook, a path he could not possibly have followed had he been born in Lyons, Paris, Manchester or London.
For Marx came to Marxism via a profound study of philosophy, specifically the philosophy of Hegel. That philosophy was very fashionable in Germany when Marx was a youth. Indeed it was sponsored and promoted by the Prussian state (Trier, like Bonn where Marx first became a student, was in Prussian territory).
Hegel, like many of his predecessors, believed that reality is fundamentally mental or spiritual. Put vulgarly, “it’s all in the mind”. Technically, this is called idealism (the idea is the ultimate reality). But not, in Hegel, merely anyone’s ideas.
These ideas are to be understood only in relation to an ‘absolute’, otherwise known as God. Not in itself a very interesting or original proposition, but, for Hegel, this reality is a process of development, not a state of affairs given once and for all. And this development is both necessary (ie could not be otherwise) and proceeds through contradiction and conflict – the famous thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Hegel attempted to construct an all-embracing system in which everything, past and present, could be understood (after the event) in its inter-connections and development through contradiction and conflict.
It is easy to see how this approach lends itself to a profoundly conservative ideology. As Hegel himself said: “Whatever is real is reasonable and whatever is reasonable is real.”
HOWEVER, there is a difficulty. For Hegel’s method stresses change through conflict, whereas his implied conclusion is, in effect, all is for the best in this best of possible worlds. Thus the Prussian state of 1831 (the year of Hegel’s death) represents the culmination of world history – though Hegel did not say this in so many words it is clearly his conclusion!
The contrast between Hegel’s method and Hegel’s system gave rise, soon after his death, to a split amongst his disciples. Those who emphasised the method, the so-called Young Hegelians, inevitably applied it to the current reality (still seen in terms of ideas, of course) and predicted its imminent passing away. Not at all what the authorities expected from philosophers!
Marx came to Berlin, capital of Prussia and Hegelianism, in 1836 after a year of dissipated idleness at Bonn and soon became first a deeply learned Hegelian and then a Young Hegelian critic.
The views of the various Young Hegelians need not be considered in any detail. It is sufficient to say that, with the important exception of Feuerbach, they remained locked into the idealist illusion – the criticism of ideas was their sole concern – and that they remained, typically, politically passive. Marx, as had been said, was one of them for some years and in this period his political views developed in the direction of an abstract ‘democracy’. His first published political article, On the Prussian Censorship (1842), is an argument against any censorship in principle, written in the Young Hegelian fashion of ‘critical criticism’. It is a most ‘unmarxist’ text.
However, Marx was already on the verge of going beyond these commonplaces. He was coming to a materialist position; that is to say to a recognition that the material world, the universe, is external to and prior to human thought or any thought, that ideas are shaped by circumstances, that Hegel’s absolute (and so the Christian/Jewish/Islamic God) is a product of human society and not a prime mover. God is indeed an idea (spirit, Geist) but that idea is made by men. It does not make them (I am using men and man in the generic sense, as Marx did, without regard to sex).
It is convenient, although not strictly in chronological order, to quote here Marx’s splendid statement of 1844:
Man makes religion, religion does not make man. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produces religion’s inverted attitude to the world because they are an inverted world themselves. Thus the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion ... Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart in a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people ... The first task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, once the holy form of human self-alienation has been discovered is to discover self-alienation in it’s unholy forms. The criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth ... the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
HERE we have the germ of historical materialism. But only the germ. The post-1847 Marx could never have written “philosophy which is in the service of history”. Such grand and cloudy abstractions are residual idealism. A little over a year later he was to write: “History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth ‘, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real living man, that does all that, that possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not a person apart, using man as a means for its own particular aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims ...” (the emphases are all in the original). Even this still speaks of an undifferentiated ‘man’ but the decisive break with idealism has taken place.
Two digressions are necessary. Why all this fuss about religion? No advanced thinker of today would take it as an important starting point (although the diverse experiences of Iran and Poland demonstrate that, in the absence of a scientific materialist force, i.e. a revolutionary workers’ party, “all the old crap” – Marx’s expression – can rise again with terrible effect).
The answer is that in post-1815 Germany, after the final defeat of revolutionary and then Bonapartist France, the neo-feudal reactionary regimes proscribed all ‘dangerous’ ideas and imposed Lutheran or Catholic orthodoxy (or both in the case of Russia) as the only permitted ideologies – hence even Marx could write as late as 1844: “the criticism of religion is the foundation of all criticism”.
Second, and of lasting significance, Marx came eventually to materialism by fighting his way through Hegel’s dynamic idealism, F!. came late to it, historically speaking. As he himself was subsequently to note, pioneer French, Scottish and English thinkers of the eighteenth century had already arrived at the materialist (i.e. scientific) position. They suffered, as pioneers hewing out an uncharted path against immense difficulties, and their materialisms typically suffered in consequence, from two defects. They tended to be mechanical, one-sidedly deterministic, on the one hand, and atomistic (hence Robinson Crusoe and Rousseau’s Social Contract) oil the other. Marx, steeped in Hegel, was not tempted by either of these errors.
In the last resort Marxism itself was a product of uneven development and then of combined development. It was the very backwardness of Germany, as Marx came to understand quite early, that produced Hegel’s philosophy which, however, contained the ‘rational kernel’ that Marx assimilated. The advanced countries (Britain and France) produced, respectively, political economy and socialism (or rather, a handful of advanced intellectuals produced these things but conditions popularised them).
What Lenin called “the three sources and component parts of Marxism” (German philosophy, British political economy, French socialism) were synthesised by Marx in a fashion which transcended their national peculiarities.
A CENTRAL element in that synthesis was the method. Hegel’s method “stood on it’s head” Marx said. Perhaps he was too kind to Hegel but without doubt it could not have been developed at that time except by someone steeped in, and at the same time going beyond, the German philosophical tradition.
The essence of the method is contained in the second and third Theses on Feuerbach (1845 and unpublished in Marx’s lifetime):
The question whether human thinking can reach objective truth is not a question of theory but a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth... The dispute about the actuality or non-actuality of thinking-thinking isolated from practice-is a purely scholastic question.
The materialist doctrine concerning the change of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated (the whole question of self-activity, the party and their inter-relationships, an immense and difficult field, but the essence was already outlined in 1845).
By 1845 Marx, and his new-found collaborator Frederick Engels (who had arrived at similar ideas by a somewhat different path), had achieved the synthesis. Their joint work of 1846, The German Ideology, marks the transition to Marxism, to a realistic socialist practice. It is a huge work (642 pages in the English version plus near 100 pages of notes, index etc.), never published in the lifetime of Marx or Engels (it first appeared in the original German in 1932) and, because of its polemical form (against various, now largely forgotten, thinkers), difficult to read.
Yet all the essential ideas are there:
... the first proposition of all human existence, and therefore of all history [is] that man must be in a position to live in order to “make history . But life involves before anything else eating and drinking, a place to live, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is, therefore, the production of material life itself. This is indeed a historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must be accomplished every day and every hour merely in order to sustain human life.
SOCIETY is structured around and built on production. And this productive process depends on the techniques, tools, equipment available at any given stage of development and, beyond the more primitive stages, gives rise to social classes, to exploiters and exploited. This, in turn, gives rise to the class struggle.
To jump ahead again to late 1847 and the immortal words of the Communist Manifesto:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, 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.
Now, capitalism has created the material basis for a classless society based on (relative) plenty. Its human basis is the proletariat. Progress, therefore, means the struggle for workers’ power.
Of course, there is vastly more to Marxism than this. Marx and Engels both produced a vast amount of work after the Communist Manifesto. The whole analysis of Capital is the outstanding case.
Moreover, the account of Marx’s own development to 1847, given here, is brutally simplified, as any short account must be. Nonetheless, it’s accurate, so far as it goes. I learned something, preparing for it for Marxism 85, so perhaps some readers will gain something too.
Last updated on 8.11.2003