The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

Part One
1. The Philosophy of the Concept

IN autumn, 1835, the 17-year-old Karl Marx, recently matriculated from the Trier Gymnasium, entered the University at Bonn as a student of jurisprudence. The family intention was that he should become a lawyer like his father. His conduct at Bonn was not exemplary; he was arrested by the police and punished by the University authorities for ‘nocturnal noisiness and drunkenness’, involved in a duel in Cologne and investigated for possessing ‘forbidden weapons’ (i.e., duelling pistols instead of the permissible swords). By October, 1836, he had persuaded his father to allow him to transfer to the great centre of critical thought, the University of Berlin. Here he quickly became a Left or Young Hegelian, infected with the philosophy of radicalism. Beside his courses in law, he attended lectures in philosophy, history and the history of art; when his father died in May, 1838, he openly proclaimed his intention of abandoning his training for a legal career and of concentrating on philosophy. For the next three years he worked on his doctoral dissertation, The Differences Between the Democritan and the Epicurean Philosophies of Nature. It was finished in 1841 and accepted for the degree by the University of Jena, where Marx had sent it to avoid the new anti-Hegelianism in Berlin and, possibly, to secure an easier degree. His confident hopes of a lectureship in philosophy at Bonn, promised him by his friend and fellow-Left-Hegelian Bruno Bauer, were dashed when Bauer himself was dismissed from the theological faculty in consequence of his radicalism. Meanwhile, Marx made his Public political debut in 1842 with two contributions to Arnold Ruge’s radical journal, Anekdota: a lengthy criticism of the Prussian King’s new instruction to censors and a brief theological note in support of Feuerbach’s exposure of miracles. There followed a spate of political articles for the radical newspaper newly formed in Cologne, the Rheinische Zeitung, which had been permitted by the Prussian authorities in the belief that it would uphold Prussian culture against Rhenish Roman Catholic separatism. On November 14, 1842, Marx was appointed editor — his first paid employment. On March 17, 1843, he resigned in a vain attempt to help the shareholders stave off the newspaper’s threatened suppression. He occupied himself with a detailed criticism, paragraph by paragraph, of those sections of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right which deal with the constitutional law of the State, the princely power, the executive power and the legislative power. (This incomplete manuscript, first published in 1927, I call his first Hegel critique.) In the later half of 1843, immediately after his marriage to jenny von Westphalen and just before their emigration to Paris, Marx was working on his contributions to the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher, published in Paris by Marx and Ruge in February, 1844. In these contributions Marx proclaims for the first time his espousal of the socialist cause and his discovery of the proletariat as the class which will provide the ‘material force’ of revolution and usher in the rational society and State. By then, as I shall seek to show, Marx had formed certain philosophical theories and ethical attitudes which continued to mould and direct his hopes and beliefs.

Throughout the period that ends with the completion of his first Hegel critique, Marx seems not to have been, in any useful sense of the word, a socialist. He certainly was a radical critic of the authoritarian Prussian State, of its censorship, its privileges, its revival of the system of estates. He believed firmly in the existence of common human interests and of rational law, and in their supremacy over class and individual privileges. He spoke occasionally of a popular will and warned that the exercise of authority from above might produce revolution from below. He was not unaware of poverty, as his articles on the wood theft law debates show,[16] and interested in socialism as an opposition movement proclaiming his own ideals of freedom and rationality. But Marx’s fundamental ideals at this stage were intellectual and theoretical rather than social or practical. ‘His path,’ as Rosenberg writes,[17] ‘had its beginning in his own intellectual and spiritual qualities, and his choice was influenced by the ideas that Hölderlin had implanted in the young German intellectuals of the Vormärz. He sought to free himself from the pressure exercised upon him and his intellectual equals by the mediocre German police state.’ Marx’s concern was with freedom and rationality, not with poor relief or factory legislation. He judged socialism — of which he confessed he knew little — harshly for its theoretical woolliness, and he judged it decidedly from outside. Until the end of 1843, he saw the poor as living examples of the irrationality of the existing State, not as a special moral indictment of that State or as vehicles for its overthrow. The separate class or estate was to him an anomaly to be abolished in the name of the truly popular sovereignty required by the rational State; he did not yet see it as the ground of a conflict to be developed until it found its dialectical conclusion. It was rather the movement of intellectual liberalism — the party of the concept, as Marx called it in his dissertation — that would usher in the rational State. That State would come, Marx believed, as the result of the blossoming forth of the rational and universal human spirit in history — working through philosophy, i.e., theoretical criticism. Philosophy was for Marx, even then, practical, in the sense that it criticised actual states of social affairs, but its function was to expose their theoretical presuppositions, to lay bare their inner contradictions. It was by exposing the discrepancy between the ‘truly real’ (i.e., the rational) and the existing state of affairs that philosophy would transform society.[18] The implication is clearly that the philosophically educated middle classes, and not the theoretically ignorant poor, will be the vehicles for such a transformation. This, at any rate, was Marx’s position in his doctoral dissertation and at the beginning of his activity on the Rheinische Zeitung. His experience on that newspaper, as we shall see, no doubt helped to open his eyes to other possible allies in the fight against the Prussian State, but only after the wave of newspaper suppressions ousted Marx from his post and demonstrated the practical impossibility of further effective criticism of the Government did Marx turn to the proletariat.

If Marx was not a socialist at this stage, he was even more emphatically not a ‘scientist’, concerned with ‘brute facts’ rather than logical or ethical ‘principles’. He did like to think of himself, from the beginning of his intellectual quest, as an opponent of logical a priorism and empty speculation. He saw himself as a man who derives logical principles from reality and not reality from logical principles. As early as 1837, he wrote in one of his verse epigrams:

Kant und Fichte gern zum Aether schweifen,
Suchten dort ein ferries Land,
Doch ich such’ nur tuchtig zu begreifen,
Was ich — auf der Strasse fand!
(M I, 1 — ii, 42.)

But what Marx finds in the street is a logical ‘principle’, and generally one of the most abstract and metaphysical kind. He does, of course, criticise Hegel for a priorism; at least he does so in the first Hegel critique if not yet in the dissertation. In the critique he attacks Hegel vigorously for performing his deduction in the logical mind instead of the actual mind and for treating world history as a mere illustration of the mysterious life history of the Idea. He complains tellingly that Hegel develops the world out of the logical concept, instead of developing the logical concept out of the world. Of Hegel’s discussion of the constitution, Marx exclaims: ‘Hegel gives us the constitution of the concept instead of the concept of the constitution’ (M I, 1-i, 420). But it is with the concept of the constitution, or with the ‘concept’ of any other thing, that Marx himself is concerned at this stage — not with the actual existing thing itself. Nor is the ‘concept’ for Marx a ‘mere’ recognition of the common features of certain existing things. For him, as for Hegel, it is their inner principle, the logical essence that determines their development, but which in fact may not yet have broken through into ‘empirical’ existence.

Marx, in fact, has as much contempt as Hegel for the ‘merely empirical’, for treating things just as they are or ‘appear’. To do so, Marx believed with Hegel, would be to see only the outer appearance, and to see this one-sidedly, with the inevitable result of being caught in seemingly irresolvable contradictions. True understanding can only be gained by looking at the concept, the motive power which is in things and yet outside them as their aim, the ‘energising principle’ which determines their character and development, not by external compulsion, but as an inner self-realisation.

The alleged inadequacy of the ‘mere empirical generalisation’ as opposed to the speculative grasp and development of the ‘concept’ seen as energising principle is the fundamental theme of Marx’s doctoral work. He contrasts Democritus, who saw the atom simply as existent, with all its contradications, and Epicurus, who allegedly saw it as absolute concept, grasping its apparent contradictions and giving them their full speculative development and ultimate reconciliation. For Democritus, says Marx in his final summing up, ‘the atom remains pure and abstract[19] category, a hypothesis which is the result of experience and not its energising principle and which therefore remains unrealised just as it fails to determine subsequent actual science’ (M I, 1-i, 52). It is because of this, Marx took his dissertation to show, that Democritus’ philosophy of nature is inadequate.

The unresolved contradictions in Democritus’ account of the atom are epitomised in the two contradictory accounts of truth with which he is credited. On the one hand, he proclaimed that truth is hidden — ‘it lies at the bottom of a well’. On the other hand, as he says elsewhere, truth is all that appears. In pursuit of truth in this sense Democritus travelled throughout the ancient world collecting and ordering facts. Yet he was never able to resolve the contradiction between the atom as inaccessible to perception and as yet logically presupposed by the existence of reality. Epicurus is able to resolve this and other contradictions in the concept of the atom because he develops it speculatively, finds the necessary logical synthesis, instead of wandering off blindly on the paths of science. He does this in precisely that part of his theory — the seemingly illogical doctrine that atoms swerve capriciously — for which he has been most criticised. In the doctrine of the swerve, according to Marx, Epicurus resolves the contradiction between the atom as a free point and as a determined line; for the atom moving mechanically, as in Democritus, is the atom determined from without, that is, the atom not itself. Epicurus’ doctrine of the swerve thus makes the atom free and self-determined. His theory of knowledge and of time, by placing the atom under the form of the inner sense, makes the atom conscious. Individual self-consciousness thus ‘steps from her concealment and confronts Nature in the independence she has just attained’.[20] The free spirit’s final obstacle is the heavenly bodies, seen by thinkers before Epicurus as eternal and unchangeable. These bodies represent abstractly individual matter confronting a self-consciousness still conceived as abstractly individual. They are the symbols of the free spirit’s greatest foe, physical necessity. Thus its final step on the march to freedom is to throw off the yoke of these heavenly bodies seen[21] as independent, as foes of the ataraxia of the human spirit. The human mind, armed with its own self-consciousness in which the independence of Nature is reflected and overcome, can now assert its own freedom and throw off the mechanistic determination imposed by external physical laws just as it threw off the Gods and divine heavenly bodies that symbolised man’s subjugation. In their place, it erects its own ‘natural science of self-consciousness’, whose subject matter is the march of human self-consciousness toward the rational whole, independent, free and self-determined.

On this ground, and this ground alone, Marx argues, can the necessary contradictions of the Democritan atomic theory be resolved. Marx proceeds to resolve them with a Hegelian sophistry almost breath-taking in its substitution of verbal analogies for real connexions. At least as sophistical as his identification of the atom with self-consciousness (through its ‘placing under the form of the inner sense') is his resolution of the contradictions threatened in Epicurus’ theory by the problems of the atom’s weight, shape and size. The question whether the attraction and repulsion between atoms does not destroy their ‘freedom’ receives similar short shrift. In being repelled or attracted by another atom, the atom is simply repelled or attracted by itself, since one atom is indistinguishable from another. It thus remains self-determined and therefore free.[22]

The critical position with which Marx is working here, and throughout his earliest writings, is frankly, even aggressively, Hegelian. To understand the world is to see its energising principle, to grasp the concept working dialectically through things toward an ultimate harmony that represents the truly real come to empirical existence. To see this, for Marx as for Hegel, is to overcome the apparent conflict between what is and what ought to be, to see them reconciled in the rational that is coming to be, the rational which will establish both true freedom and lasting harmony.

It is clear then, that for the young Marx as for Hegel, philosophy is a normative study, and that the notion of the ‘rational’ provides them with a moral as well as an historical end. It is thus that for both of them the criteria of rationality become at the same time the criteria of what is ultimately moral or good. These criteria, as we saw, are freedom and harmony. For Marx, as for Hegel, freedom meant self-determination in accordance with one’s inner constitution; it meant not being determined from without, by one’s relations to other things, but by the logical principle of one’s own development. Harmony meant above all the lack of inner contradiction, in that curious Hegelian sense of contradiction that confuses it with exclusion and treats it as a character of — imperfect — existing things, thus holding that two contradictories may both be ‘partially’ true and both exist. Since contradiction is held to be the necessary basis of historical change, the truly harmonious is also the stable, the ultimately durable. It represents the truly real as against the ‘mere’ dependently existing thing which, by its dependence, is not itself. To be truly self-determined and free from contradiction is to be truly real and truly good.[23] To exhibit dependence (determination from without), division, instability, and ‘self-contradiction’ is to fall short, to be evil in a sense that sees evil merely as a negative appearance, a one-sidedness, rather than as a positive quality. The conflict between good and evil, for both Marx and Hegel, is not irreconcilable or eternal — the evil is simply the partial, a one-sidedness that will be taken up and dissolved in the inevitable progress toward the rational.

There are certain important differences between Marx and Hegel even at the time of Marx’s completion of his dissertation. Hegel and Marx both saw thought as an essence, and not as a relation, but in Hegel’s doctrine of the thought in things, and in his treatment of the Absolute Idea as that which ultimately contains all its manifestations, both social and ‘natural’, thought loses its specifically human character and the Absolute Idea becomes an impersonal, non-human force, at once the dynamic form of all reality and its ultimate totality. Marx, on the other hand, followed the Left Hegelians in identifying thought with human self-consciousness, and the motive power of history with a specifically human spirit or essence. We shall see later how Marx, in consequence, rejects the non-human Absolute Idea as something alien to humanity and to man, and regards its alleged social manifestations (e.g., Hegel’s rational State and its organs) as attempts to erect authoritarian social institutions ‘dominated by a spirit not their own’. This ‘ too, is why Marx can take the Hegelian criteria of rationality at face value, and actually use them against Hegel’s complicated structure of rights and duties. Similarly, Marx rejects Hegel’s notion of philosophy as Nachdenken, as the passive analysis of the progress of the Idea after the event. ‘The owl of Minerva’, Hegel had written in a famous passage in his preface to the Philosophy of Right, ‘spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.’ Marx, on the other hand, by identifying the motive power of history with human self-consciousness, could see philosophy as the critical activity of that consciousness, and hence as itself part of the motive power. For Marx, at any rate when he wrote his dissertation, philosophy was thus the force which would change the world, and not merely register its changes.

Marx’s rejection of Hegel’s attempt to straddle the issue between immanent self-realisation and external necessity has one fundamentally important result: it brings out even more clearly the Rousseau-Kantian strain in Hegel, the emphasis on freedom as self-determination and on the free will as the universal and universalisable will. To the youthful Marx, the goal of human history is the free society — the universal kingdom of ends — and men and institutions are judged by the Kantian criterion of universalisability, with self-determination strongly emphasised and the concept of duty entirely omitted. Marx believed, of course, that, as Hegel had shown, the Kantian dualism must be overcome: the dichotomies of noumenal and phenomenal, of speculative and practical reason, of duty and inclination, would disappear in the ‘truly human’ man and ‘truly human’ society. But the dualism, Marx believed, was about to be overcome — the rational society was hovering in the wings of the theatre of history. Not until the end Of 1843, when his confidence in the immediate, almost unaided, coming of the rational society had waned, did Mm pay any serious attention to the dialectic process that would bring it about. Before that, he was not interested in tracing historical progress through its succession of partial forms. The rational society was at hand — it was no longer necessary to study the contradictions of empirical existence. All that needed to be done — and all that Marx did in his first year of political writing — was to hold up the truly rational before the empirical, and watch the latter disintegrate. This is why, in his earliest work, Marx could confidently hold up, against the perfidy and privilege of the Prussian State, the positive morality and the natural law of the free man and the free society.