The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

Part Four. Ethics and the Mature Marx

12. The New Edifice: Historical Materialism and the Rejection of ‘Philosophy’

MARX, we have seen, began his political activity as a philosopher. His tools were primarily logical; the core of his belief was a philosophical, indeed, metaphysical, conception of the necessary dialectical development of man, through alienation and the inevitable conflicts resulting from alienation, toward the truly universal and truly self-determined. He did display, from the very beginning, a strong antitranscendental strain, an increasingly confident rejection of anything divorced from empirical reality. Between 1841 and the end of 1844, Marx’s views became steadily more social in content: the Communist society replaced the Hegelian Absolute, the dialectical conflict in history became a conflict of movements and institutions rather than of categories and ideas, the ‘party of the concept’ was replaced by the proletariat. But in the second Hegel critique published in February 1844, his insistence on seeking the positive social content of all human beliefs is still no more than the insistence that all knowledge is empirical, that the supra-terrestrial can always be reduced to the terrestrial. Toward the end of the Paris Manuscripts (M 1, 3, 115) Marx argues that the laws of alienation which dominate political economy also apply to religion, the family, the State, jurisprudence, morality, science and art. But this is so because all these are, like industry, forms of human production and alienation evinces itself within all human production. There is nothing in his work yet to suggest that economic production must dominate and determine, at all times, all other forms of production and of social life. There is nothing in his work to call into question the precise status or content of the logico-ethical categories dependence, alienation, self-determination, ‘the truly human’ — with which he is working.

By the middle of 1845, however, these questions do move into the forefront of his work. In that year, after completing the Paris Manuscripts Of 1844, Marx discovered or proclaimed his materialist interpretation of history[78] — his insistence that economic production dominates and determines all social institutions and beliefs. In the German Ideology he writes:

Already here we see how this civil society is the true source and theatre of all history, and how nonsensical is the conception of history held hitherto, which neglects the real relationships and confines itself to high-sounding dramas of princes and States. Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of this stage and, in so far, transcends the State and nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself towards foreign peoples as nationality, and inwardly must organise itself as State ... Civil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social organisation evolving directly out of production and commerce, which in all ages forms the basis of the State and of the rest of the idealistic superstructure, has, however, always been designated by the same name.
(M 1, 5, 25 — 6. Italics mine.)

In the letter to P. V. Annenkov of December 28, 1846, written soon after the completion of the German Ideology, Marx develops the same point:

What is society, whatever its form may be? The product of men’s reciprocal activity. Are men free to choose this or that form of society for themselves? By no means. Assume a particular state of development in the productive forces of man and you will get a particular form of commerce and consumption. Assume particular stages of development in production, commerce and consumption and you will have a corresponding social order, a corresponding organisation of the family and of the ranks and classes. Presuppose a particular civil society and you will get particular political conditions which are only the official expression of civil society ... the social history of men is never anything but the history of their individual development, whether they are conscious of it or not. Their material relations are the bases of all their relations. These material relations are only the necessary forms in which their material and individual activity is realised.
(SC 7-8.)

It is on this basis that Marx can turn viciously[79] on his own earlier conception ‘of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy’. There is, he insists in the German Ideology, no essential Man apart from real man and real men are shaped by economic forces:

This sum of productive forces, forms of capital and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given, is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as ‘substance’ and ‘essence of man’.
(M 1, 5, 28.)

‘All history’, he reminds Proudhon,[80] ‘is nothing but the continuous transformation of human nature.’ Thus, finally, he can replace philosophy by the economico-historical science of society:

Where speculation ends — in real life — there real, positive science begins; the depiction of the practical activity, of the practical process of development, of men. Empty talk about consciousness ceases, and real knowledge has to take its place. With the depiction of reality, philosophy as an independent branch of activity loses its medium of existence. At best, its place can only be taken by a summing up of the most general results which can be abstracted from observation of the historical development of men. In themselves, viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have no value whatever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of the materials of history, to indicate the sequence of the separate data. But by no means do they afford a recipe or schema, as does philosophy, for neatly trimming the epochs of history. On the contrary, our difficulties begin only when we set about the observation and arrangement — the real depiction — of our historical material, whether of a past epoch or of the present. The removal of these difficulties is governed by premises which it is quite impossible to state here, but which only the study of the actual life-processes and activity of the individuals of each epoch will make evident.
(M 1, 5, 16 — 17.)

Morality — at least in the sense of normative ‘principles’, which Marx had already rejected in his earlier work — went just as definitely:

Communists preach no morality at all ... They do not put to people the moral demand: Love one another, be not egoists, etc.; on the contrary, they know very well that egoism, like sacrifice, is under certain conditions the necessary form of the individual’s struggle for survival.
(Op. cit., P. 227.)

Communists know very well, too, that ‘conscience is related to the knowledge and whole way of life of a man. A Republican has a different conscience from Royalist, a propertied man has a different conscience from one who is propertyless, a thoughtful man a different one from a man without thought.’[81] What applies to conscience, according to Marx and Engels, applies to all human ideas and conceptions:

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in a word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life? What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

When people speak of ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express the fact that within the old society the elements of the new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence.
(The Communist Manifesto, SW 1, 49)

If conceptions of religion, morality, law and ideals of freedom and justice have been common to all past stages of society, this is merely because

one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms.
(op. cit., p. 50.)

This, at any rate, is one side of what Marx began saying from 1845 onward and continued to say till the end of his life in 1883. It was on these conceptions that Engels erected his ‘scientific socialism’ and subsequent Marxists their materialist dogmas. How far they correctly represent his mature thought and how far they constitute a repudiation of his earlier philosophical and ethical beliefs we shall have the opportunity of judging.

A preliminary difficulty for the criticism and elucidation of Marx’s mature position concerns the ‘status’ of any assertion that may be made about Marxism or any other subject. His mature thought is often interpreted — by Marxists at least — as implying that there can be no question of ‘objective’ truth or ‘objective’ knowledge and that any criticism or elucidation of Marxism in terms of ‘fixed concepts’, such as he displayed in his earlier work, is therefore completely pointless and inadmissible.

There are two main sources for this interpretation. One is the eleven Theses on Feuerbach, jotted down by Marx in his notebooks in the spring Of 1845 and first published by Engels (in a version not wholly true to the original) in the appendix to the separate edition of his Ludwig Feuerbach in 1888. The second is the specific pronouncements on truth by Engels in his Ludwig Feuerbach and his Anti-Dühring. The position suggested by Marx and the line taken by Engels are not the same.

‘The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (including that of Feuerbach),’ Marx writes in the first thesis, ‘is that the thing, reality, sensibility, is conceived only under the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as human sensory activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively’ (M 1, 5, 533; cf SW II, 363). The point is developed in the second thesis:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.
(M 1, 5, 534; cf. SW II, 365.)

That this implies a pragmatic theory of truth — the position that true beliefs are those which work or aid the solution of ‘tasks’ — is taken to be confirmed by the famous eleventh thesis:

Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point, however, is to change it.
(M 1, 5, 535; SW 11, 367.)

Now, in so far as the Theses are an attack on the Cartesian cogito, on the doctrine of the passive mind merely confronted by the ‘external’ object, Marx’s position is perfectly sound. He is insisting that the mental activity and the object interact in a single process and that mental activities do not passively cognise an object, but actively strive toward it. It is this recognition that the mental and the non-mental belong to the same historical, spatio-temporal reality, that they interact on a single plane, and not any doctrine of the primacy of the ‘substantial’, which is the valuable part of Marx’s materialism.

The quotations given, however, reveal far more questionable material. If idealism enabled Marx to reject the dualism of mind and matter and to see the mind as active, knowing as a form of striving, it also led him into the false view that terms which are part of a single process become the same term. It is this false amalgamation of the knower and the known, the denial of any final distinction between them, which seems to bring him to the view that knowledge is possible only to those who actually participate in the movement of things.[82]

That Marx’s position is false is brought out sufficiently by the admissions implicit in the eleventh thesis. If knower and known are the same process, if knowledge consists of ‘moving’ with the known, then the idle speculation and interpretation which Marx decries would simply be impossible. Neither could we make any sense of the demand that the knower must change ‘the world’. If he and ‘the world’ are one, if his knowing it consists of moving with it, then he cannot at the same time act on it from the outside or produce changes within it. (The same incoherence comes out in the Marxist slogan, formulated by Engels, that ‘freedom is the insight into necessity’. If the development is truly necessary, then the knower’s insight or lack of insight into it is totally irrelevant. The process must continue in the way set down; if the observer himself is treated as part of the process, then the observer, too, must be carried along in its development. But whether he is treated as part of the necessary development or not, he must be powerless to affect it and his insight must therefore be irrelevant. Else the development is not necessary.)

A faint suggestion of cruder instrumentalism — of pragmatism in its true sense — lies in Marx’s association of truth with reality and power.

If Marx is saying that true beliefs are proved — or more accurately, confirmed — in practice, in our dealing and grappling with the objects of these beliefs, then this is perfectly sound: though it again implies that knower and known can be distinguished as distinct processes. If Marx is saying — as some pragmatists have said — that ‘ “all X are Y” is true’ means nothing but ‘ “all X are Y” works in practice’, he is faced with the obvious difficulty that the latter proposition still has to be treated as true in the ordinary, and not in the pragmatic, sense. Otherwise the proposition ‘(“all X are Y” works in practice) is true’ would have to mean ‘(“all X are Y” works in practice) works in practice’ and so on to a vicious infinite regress. At some stage we should have to be able to say ‘Does it work in practice or not?’ and this could only be made a significant question by treating the truth of a proposition as the issue ‘Is it so or not?’ and not as a pragmatic question of its consequences.

The position suggested by Engels has not the merit of confusedly drawing attention to important issues. It is simply the most naive proclamation that all truth is relative, accompanied by material that makes it clear that Engels himself has confused different issues and hardly knows what his statement means. Since Hegel, he says in his Ludwig Feuerbach:

One cannot be imposed upon any longer by the inflated insubstantial antitheses of the older metaphysics of true and false, good and evil, identical and differentiated, necessary and accidental; one knows that these antitheses have only a relative significance, that that which is recognised as true now, has its concealed and later-developing false side, just as that which is recognised as false, its true side, by virtue of which it can later on prevail as the truth ... (SW II, 351, amended according to the superior translation in the Kerr edition.)

In Anti-Dühring, Engels proclaims the same relativism and takes it to be proven by the spectacle of human disagreement and human error:

That twice two make four, that birds have beaks, and similar statements, are proclaimed as eternal truths only by those who aim at deducing, from the existence of eternal truths in general, the conclusion that there are also eternal truths in the sphere of human history — eternal morality, eternal justice, and so on — which claim a validity and scope equal to those of the truths and deductions of mathematics. And then we can confidently rely on this same friend of humanity taking the first opportunity to assure us that all previous fabricators of eternal truths have been to a greater or lesser degree asses and charlatans, that they have all fallen into error and made mistakes; but that their error and their fallibility have been in accordance with natural law, and prove the existence of truth and accuracy in his case; and that he, the prophet who has now arisen, has in his bag final and ultimate truth, eternal morality and eternal justice. This has all happened so many hundred and thousands of times that we can only feel astonished that there should still be people credulous enough to believe this, not of others, but of themselves. (AD 104-5.)

The central weakness of such relativism has been exposed by Plato in the Theaetetus. The relativist, in claiming that all truth is relative, does not put his own claims forward as relative but claims for them ‘absolute’, i.e., unambiguous, truth. There is in fact no other way of conveying an issue: to say all truth is relative, however much the issue may be confused by reference to what is ‘true for me’ is simply to say that X both is and is not Y and thus to make discourse impossible. That Engels has no real wish to do so is made sufficiently evident by his shirking of the issue over mathematical truths and his admission, in Anti-Dühring, that certain ‘trivial’ propositions — ‘twice two make four’, ‘birds have beaks’, etc. — are unambiguously and not relatively true. His position, indeed, depends entirely on the consideration of more ‘complicated’ theories and assertions which, he claims, may be true to a relative extent but not absolutely. He illustrates this by citing Regnault’s discovery that Boyle’s law does not apply in certain cases a proof, according to Engels, that Boyle’s law is untrue and yet not false. But the actual position, of course, is that Boyle’s law — the assertion that all gases have property X — is positively and not relatively false, while a different assertion — that all A — gases have property X — is positively and not relatively true.[83] If neither assertion were unambiguously true or false, there would be no way of choosing between them.

What Engels is really saying is that men are more prone to error in general statements than in particular ones and in social and historical fields than in natural sciences. This, far from implying the relativity of all truth, requires the recognition of unambiguous truth, of a positive and definite distinction between truth and error. Thus, when Engels writes in Anti-Dühring (p. 101) that ‘the knowledge which has unconditional claim to truth is realised in a series of relative errors ... through an endless eternity of human existence,’ it is clear that the word ‘relative’ has no meaning here. It should simply be dropped. The movement described by Engels is not a movement from relative to absolute truth, but a quantitative movement from the knowledge of some facts to the knowledge of more facts. But what we know and what we can know is irrelevant to the objective issue of what is, or is not, the case. (Neither, of course, is there any ground for Engels’ vulgar optimistic doctrine that knowledge constantly progresses, that there are no regressions, no recrudescences of error. The suggestion that every theory contains ‘more truth’ than the theory which preceded it is patently false.) The point, however, is that if all truth were relative, we could not speak of a movement, of discovery, at all — we could not distinguish true beliefs from error. What Engels has patently done is to confuse ‘absolute’ truth in the sense of total knowledge, knowledge of all that is to be known, with ‘absolute’ truth in the sense of conveying an unambiguous issue, of being either true or false and not both. His correct assertion that there can be no total knowledge in no way implies that any single issue is not unambiguous or even that it cannot be known correctly. If everything had to be known before knowledge could begin or error discovered, knowledge could not begin and error could not be discovered.

A third attack on the very basis of criticism, on the positive treatment of philosophical or ethical issues, rests on the ‘materialist’ reduction of ideologies to the material foundations of society, to the material position of a class or (more ineptly) to the material ‘interests’ of a class. We have seen this view in the citation from the Communist Manifesto a few pages back; it is to be found, in different forms and with varying degrees of ambiguity, in most of Marx’s mature work. What is proclaimed as truth, these statements are read to imply, is what any particular man is necessitated into thinking by the social situation of which he is part: since no man can escape this determination, there can be no question of ‘objective’ truth; since social situations constantly change, there can be no question of permanent truth. Thus Marx insists that the sensory world is itself a historical product, indeed, a product of activity in the world of industry and trade:

Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensory certainty’ are given through social development, industry and commercial relations. The cherry tree, like almost all fruit trees, was transplanted to our zone, as is well known, through commerce; it was only by virtue of this action of a determinate society at a determinate time that it was given to ‘the sensory certainty’ of Feuerbach.
(M 1, 5, 32 — 3.)

The bearing of this on the truth of any proposition, such as the belief that cherry trees blossom in spring, need hardly be taken seriously. While Marx’s attempt to socialise the whole of reality, to suggest that all non-human things are products of human material activity, is obviously false, he is quite right in suggesting that knowledge has conditions and that these conditions are historical, that they change. It may even be true that what people know is what they — or some motives within them — wish to know: we know that which satisfies some desires or eases some tension. This is very different from insisting that a man’s belief in what is true, or even his errors, are determined by his class position, or that the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class. These propositions are obviously empirically false. But in any case, all these assertions concern only how a man comes to know; they have nothing to do with the truth of what he believes. To the question whether cherry trees blossom in spring, the origin of cherry trees and the manner in which I came to know them, are entirely irrelevant. Marxists, as well as Marx himself, do confuse questions about the origin of a thing with questions about the actual nature of the thing; but their confusions have to be brought out and firmly rejected. They themselves, as we have seen, cannot talk, cannot make any assertions at all, without assuming that the truth of an assertion is a positive and definite issue, and that a thing can be distinguished from the conditions which produced it.

Philosophy ‘as an independent branch of activity’, we have seen Marx suggest, ‘loses its medium of existence’ once positive historical science begins. Does this, then, make logical or philosophical criticism of Marx’s work ‘inappropriate’?

There is a great deal in Marx’s writing — early and late — to suggest that he would reject completely any conception of philosophy as a ‘meta-science’ concerned purely with methodology, axioms or principles that logically precede the possibility of any science whatever. There are, Marx would have insisted, no ‘principles’ preceding empirical knowledge or independent of it; there can be no question of ‘applying’ ‘principles’ to ‘facts’. There is, as he says in the German Ideology, no ‘fruitness’ apart from real fruits, no ‘humanity’ apart from real men. Universal propositions can have significance, according to Marx, only in so far as they isolate the common characters of existing events.[84] This position of Marx’s, I should argue, is unexceptionable.

Marx’s Hegelianism, however, drove him further. Nothing could be understood in itself, as having positive and unambiguous characters; everything was a ‘moment’ in the history of its development toward a final end; it could be understood only in terms of its total situation and the total process of which it was part. [85] This position is not unexceptionable — it seems to me, in fact, entirely untenable. It requires Marx, as we have seen, to destroy or ‘overcome’ all positive distinctions. It forced him to treat ‘Nature’ as a social product that will finally be taken into man. It now also forces him — since his new underlying reality is to be society and no longer Man — to minimise[86] any specific human characteristics and to treat men as no more than a reflection or product of social relations. It is this totalism which accounts for the tendency in Marx to treat his historical materialism as a form of economic reductionism and to treat the products of social forces as mere ‘reflections’ of them. But if all things are to be part of one process, determined by ‘it’, they cannot have their own characters, their own ways of acting.

This appears to be the upshot of Marx’s ‘materialist’ or economic interpretation of history — a theory we shall now turn to examine more closely.