The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962
IN the first Hegel critique Marx, following Hegel and an eighteenth-century tradition, had decomposed social life into civil society — the material and economic life of man, the divided and conflicting world of his private desires and activities — and the political State, which represents man’s recognition of social interdependence and his striving for unity. Hegel, according to Marx, had sought to impose the latter on the former. Marx, on the other hand, insisted that the entire dualism would have to disappear in the rational society which would be at once spontaneously co-operative and materially all-embracing. Precisely how such a rational society would come about, Marx, as we have seen, had not yet asked. Between his resignation from the Rheinische Zeitung in March, 1843 and the publication of the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher in February, 1844, he was both to ask the question and to emerge with an answer that was to direct and canalise the whole of his subsequent thought. The rational society would come about through the dialectical conflict, ultimate dissolution and ‘taking up’ of civil society and the political State. The bearers of the transformation, its ‘material base’, would be the proletariat: the class which is within civil society and yet outside it.
For Marx in his earliest writings, philosophy was the activity that finally overcomes man’s empirical nature and the divisive, incoherent institutions based on this nature. It brings about the rational State. In the final stage, Marx had argued in his dissertation, philosophy is ‘fired with the drive to make itself concrete'; it turns, in the form of will, against the empirical world. The resultant conflict ends, and can only end, in that final rational reconciliation in which the world becomes philosophical and philosophy worldly.
At the opening of his career, philosophy becoming worldly meant two things to Marx. Firstly, it meant that philosophical concepts would ultimately become concrete existences. The rational reality which philosophy discovers as the necessity behind the one-sidedness of current empirical reality would itself burst into empirical being. The actual would become also the rational or truly real. Secondly, philosophy becoming worldly meant that even before this rational reconciliation philosophy enters the fray against the one-sided empirical reality. It turns on ‘the world itself’ and struggles to change it. ‘But the practice of philosophy’, Marx had insisted, ‘is itself theoretical. It is criticism.’ (M I, 1-i, 64.) Philosophy becoming worldly thus did not mean for Marx, at this stage, that philosophy abandoned the philosophic method of criticism for some other form of struggle. It meant simply that philosophy turned from the discussion of abstract, metaphysical issues and took actual worldly institutions for the objects of its criticism. In the first two years of his critical writing, as we saw, Marx appeared to believe that it was sufficient to expose the ‘contradictions’ of empirical reality and to hold up against them the truly rational. The growing reaction in Prussia, culminating in the wave of newspaper suppressions that lost Marx his job in March, 1843, Was to show Marx that it was not enough. The ‘party of the concept’ had been proved utterly powerless when faced by the material forces of the State. On most of the ‘philosophical radicals’ the situation had a politically shattering effect. It drove them back into the examination of individual consciousness, of religion and theories of culture, and away from a practice of politics that showed all the signs of leading to nothing but despair. Only Marx, Ruge and Hess threw themselves with new energy into political effort. Marx, above all, with his pugnacious belief in freedom and dignity, was not the man to shrink from the struggle. On January 25, 1843, immediately on hearing that the Rheinische Zeitung is to be suppressed, he writes to Ruge:
I see in the suppression of the Rh. Z. a step forward for political consciousness and am therefore resigning. Apart from that, the atmosphere had become too oppressive for me. It is bad to perform servile tasks, even for freedom, and to fight with pins instead of clubs. I am tired of the hypocrisy, stupidity and bullying authority, and of our capping and cringing, our evasion and hair-splitting with words. In other words, the Government has set me free again.
(M I, 1-ii, 294.)
Typically enough, Marx was already on the look-out for possible allies. Thus on March 13, 1843, the eve of his retirement from the paper, he writes again to Ruge:
The head of the local Israelites has just come to me seeking my signature for a petition to the Landtag on behalf of the Jews, and I shall give it. Repellent as I find the Israelite belief, Bauer’s notions seen too abstract to me. We must riddle the Christian State with as many holes as possible and smuggle in the rational ... We must at least try this — and bitterness grows with every petition rejected amid protests.
(M I, 1-ii, 308.)
By the end of that year Marx had proclaimed an ally more powerful than these poor Rhenish Jews — the proletariat.
‘The weapon of criticism’, Marx had discovered, ‘can certainly not supplant the criticism of weapons: material force must be overthrown by material force.’ Thus, in the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher, Marx proclaims his new political programme, the necessary union of philosophic criticism and class agitation, the alliance of thinking humanity which suffers and suffering humanity which thinks.
Revolutions need a passive element, a material basis ... It is not enough that the thought strives to be made real, reality itself must strive toward the thought.
(Second Hegel critique, M I, 1-i, 615-16)
Where, then, lies the positive possibility of German emancipation? Answer: In the formation of a class with radical chains ... the proletariat ... Philosophy finds in the proletariat its material weapons.
(Ibid., pp. 619-20.)
Marx had discovered that he needs the proletariat, but he has not abandoned philosophy:
Just as philosophy finds in the proletariat its material weapons, so the proletariat finds in philosophy its intellectual weapons, and as soon as the lightning of thought has penetrated thoroughly into this naive popular ground the emancipation of the German into a man will be complete ... The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. Philosophy cannot translate itself into reality without taking up and dissolving the proletariat, the proletariat cannot rise and dissolve itself without making philosophy real.
(Ibid., pp. 620-1.)
Unquestionably, Marx was pushed toward the proletariat and toward the study of the concrete conditions of social development by his realisation of the impotence of a struggle that used ideas alone. But if the search for ‘material’ allies and foundations arose out of the practical climate in which Marx worked and out of his own aggressive temperament, it was equally necessary to him as part of a more detailed working out of the views he had sketched in his dissertation, his contributions to the Rheinische Zeitung and his first Hegel critique. He did there, and still does to some extent in the passages quoted immediately above, portray the climax of history as the confrontation of, and ultimate reconciliation of the ‘contradiction’ between, an unphilosophical world and an unworldly philosophy. He had begun by emphasising that philosophy, in the final stage, sheds its unworldliness and enters the dialectical struggle by seeking to make itself concrete. Now, political events had made Marx realise that the thought striving toward reality was not enough. Reality would also have to strive toward the thought. Marx’s strong realisation of this at this particular stage may have stemmed mainly from the practical situation, but it enabled him to come to grips with what had been in any case a major weakness in his earlier position. For the dichotomy of thought and reality which runs through Marx’s earliest views is a weak expression of what he himself believed. Philosophical criticism was for him the manifestation of man’s universal, generic being in conflict with the one-sidedness and egoism of man’s particular, empirical being. Such a conflict is not merely a conflict between ‘thought’ and ‘reality’. It is a conflict within (social) reality between public and private being. To that conflict Marx now devotes his attention.
In his first Hegel critique Marx, following Feuerbach, had insisted that all thought is social or ‘natural’ in content, that that which is allegedly above ‘the world’ can always be reduced to a reflection of something within ‘the world’. In the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher he is able to develop this view. ‘Material’ life is something which he still sees as distinct and separate from the ‘theoretical’ life of men; but he insists — quite rightly — that the supraterrestrial is always reducible to the terrestrial. Thus he treats religion as expressing on the one hand real misery and on the other the protest against real misery (second Hegel critique, M I, 1-i, 607), and insists that in dealing with philosophy we are dealing with ‘a copy, not an original’ (ibid., p. 608). Marx, who had constantly seen philosophy as an expression of man’s real essence, now plants it firmly in its social context and ceases to treat it loosely as conquering reality from outside. From now on he treats the fundamental conflict and movement toward rationality as taking place within society, as a necessary consequence of social features and forms of development.
Although Marx has turned to the proletariat for succour, he does not yet see the dialectical conflict in society primarily as a conflict between economic classes. The central feature of modern society for him, at this stage, is not the separation between various economic groups in society. It is the separation, within each man himself, between his empirical being and his generic, social being, between his civil, material life and his political life. It is the separation between civil society and the political State, between private, egoistic interest and common interest:
The consummate political State is in its essence the generic life of man in contrast with his material life. All the presuppositions of this egoistic life remain in civil society, as properties of civil society outside the sphere of the State. Where the political State has reached its true form, man leads a double life, a heavenly one and an earthly one, not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life itself. He leads a life within the common unity [Gemeinwesen], in which he is himself a common or generic being, and he leads a life in civil society, in which he acts as a private person, regarding other people as means and demeaning himself into a means, so that he becomes the football of alien powers.
(‘On the Jewish Question’, M I, 1-i, 584.)
Here, then, is Marx’s new social dialectic — the hostile confrontation of civil society and political State, each of them abstracted, one-sided, unstable and logically incomplete, powerless, within its present form, to express its ‘true nature’ or to achieve logical completion. In the Hegelian destruction of these forms, and in the raising of their respective contents into a new form where both are harmoniously reconciled, the rational society will be born:
Every emancipation consists of leading the human world and human relationship back to man himself ... Human emancipation will be complete only when the actual existing individual man takes back into himself the abstract citizen, when, as individual man, he has become a generic social being [Gattungswesen] in his everyday life, in his individual work and in his individual relations, when man has recognised and organised his own forces [forces propres] as social powers, and thus no longer severs this social power from himself in the shape of political power.
(‘On the Jewish Question’, M I, 1-i, 599.)
The conflict between civil society and political State, then, is seen primarily as the expression of a conflict within man himself, as an example of that alienation which Hegel sees as an essential step in the development of mind, and which Feuerbach strikingly developed in the field of religion. just as Hegel had argued in the Phenomenology of Mind that the feeling of estrangement between man and certain of his own externalised powers becomes particularly acute at certain periods of history, so Marx argued that the hostile confrontation of civil society and political State is a modern phenomenon, the necessary precondition of the final rational society and the product of political emancipation from feudalism. In his first Hegel critique he had already argued that in medieval times the strict division between civil society and political state did not exist. The whole of man’s material life was pervaded by religious and political forms. Men carried on their ‘private’ pursuits in guilds, estates, corporations. ‘The material content of the State was determined by its form, every private sphere had a political character, or was a political sphere’ (M I, 1-i, 437).
Now, in his essay on the Jewish question, Marx proceeds to develop the point and to show how history has set the stage for the final dialectical conflict:
Political emancipation is the dissolution of the old society on which the sovereign power, the alienated political life of the people, rests. The political revolution is the revolution of civil society. What was the character of the old society? One word describes it. Feudalism. The old civil society had a directly political character, i.e., the elements of civil life, such as property, the family and ways of earning a living, were raised to the level of being elements of civic life in the form of seignorial rights, estates and guilds. In this form they determined the relationship of the single individual to the State as a whole, i.e., they determine his political situation, i.e., his separation or exclusion from the other constituent parts of society. For this organisation of the life of the people did not raise property or labour to the level of social elements. It rather consummated their separation from the civic whole and formed them into particular societies within society. Nevertheless, the functions and conditions of life in civil society remain political, even if political in the feudal sense, i.e., excluding the individual from the civic whole, transforming the particular relationship between his guild or corporation and the civic whole into a general relationship between the individual and social life, just as they transformed his private, particular activity and situation into a general activity and situation. In consequence, the State as a unity, and the consciousness, will and activity of the State — the general political power — appear as the particular concern of a ruler separated from the people and of his servants.
The political revolution which overthrew the power of these rulers and made affairs of state affairs of the people, which made the political State a matter of universal concern, i.e., which made it a true State, necessarily smashed all estates, corporations, guilds and privileges as just so many expressions of the separation of the people from its communal life. The political revolution thus destroyed the political character of civil society. It smashed civil society into its simple constituents: on the one hand, individuals, on the other, the material and spiritual or cultural elements which form the life-content, the social situation, of these individuals. It liberated the political spirit, which, distributed in the various blind alleys of feudal society, had been worn down and decomposed; it gathered together the scattered fragments, liberated the political spirit from its amalgamation with civil life and constituted it into the sphere of common social being [Gemeinwesen], of universal public affairs, theoretically divorced from the particular elements of civil life. Specific activities and specific social situations sank to merely individual significance. They no longer constituted the universal relationship between the individual and the State totality. Public affairs as such became the universal affair of every individual; the political function became his universal function.
This perfection of the idealism of the State was at the same time the consummation of the materialism of civil society. Shaking off the political yoke meant at the same time shaking off those bonds which held fast the egoistic spirit of civil society. Political emancipation was at the same time the emancipation of civil society from politics, from even the appearance of a universal content.
Feudal society was broken up into its basic element, into man. But [it was broken up] into man in the shape in which he really was its basic element, into the egoistic man.
(M I, 1-i, 597-8.)
Here, then, is the basic structure of Marx’s new social dialectic. The struggle between the particular, empirical nature of man and his rational, universal essence is the struggle between his private, material pursuits in civil society and the unity and universality expressed in the political State. In feudal society the struggle was still unclear. Man’s material life and his political life were welded together, everything he did was treated as legitimately coming within the sphere of religious and political life. As a result, the feudal structure did to some extent inhibit and suppress the naked divisiveness and individual conflict of civil society, of man’s economic and material life. It tolerated no economic ‘freedom’ to indulge openly in the bellum omnium contra omnes; it bound serfs to the land, fettered the ‘free’ land-holder in the political chains of homage and fealty, controlled retail prices and standards of workmanship through the guilds, forbade usury as an offence against the Christian faith. But the unity and universality proclaimed by feudalism were not the unity and universality of free men, co-operating spontaneously. Feudal unity was an artificial, illusory unity: a unity in bondage. Instead of overcoming division, feudalism elevated it into a political principle and temporarily stabilised it by force. Precisely because feudal society had not yet split human nature into two, because the rational universal being of man had not yet liberated itself from man’s particularity and division, man under feudalism could not yet recognise his potentialities. The struggle was not yet clear. Then came the political revolution against feudal tyranny which ushered in modern society. It overthrew the political bondage of feudalism; but at the same time it also overthrew feudalism’s political and religious control of economic life. It liberated man as a political citizen; it also liberated man as a self-seeking economic unit. The contradiction in social life thus emerged openly for all to see: on the one hand, the unified, universal political state, the fellowship of man as a citizen: on the other, the divisive, conflicting civil society, the material world of greed and competition, the bellum omnium contra omnes. ‘The word “civil society” ‘, Marx writes in the German Ideology (M I, 5, 26), ‘emerged in the eighteenth century, when property relationships had already extricated themselves from the ancient and medieval communal society [Gemeinwesen]. Civil society as such develops only with the bourgeoisie.’