Franz Mehring

Philosophy and Philosophizing


Original Publication: Die Neue Zeit, Vol.XXVII, No.1 (1909).
Translator: Rubin Gotesky.
Publication in English: Marxist Quarterly, April-June 1937, pp.293-297.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Young Hegelians in whose midst Karl Marx awoke to philosophic self-consciousness are, not without reason, forgotten and, with perhaps one exception, unheard of; and this one exception only proves the rule. Bruno Bauer would have vanished from the memory of man as a revolutionary philosopher if he had not thoroughly investigated an historical problem of great importance.

Seldom in history has there been such a daring attempt as was made by these freethinkers who strived to free mankind from the 2,000-year incubus of Christianity and, consequently, from every incubus of oppression. But never before was such an equally bold attempt wrecked so frightfully. What shall one perhaps say of Rutenberg who at thirty introduced the young Karl Marx to Hegelian philosophy, and then collaborated with him on the Rheinische Zeitung; who ten years later founded the National Zeitung with the brave philistine, Zabel, and again twenty years later, when sixty, placidly passed away as editor of the Imperial Prussian Staat-Anzeiger?

If he had been the only one, one might have said the herd ought not to be held responsible for one black sheep. But all of these young Hegelians had a more or less similar tragic end, not because they were personally scoundrels, but because they were deluded by the “idea” in which they saw, in accordance with Hegel’s picture, the motivating force of historical development. Bruno Bauer became the collaborator of the Kreuzzeitung and the Post, not out of self-interest or particularly ignoble inducements. In this respect he remained proud in his honorable poverty. When the septuagenarian sent a collection of his articles, published in the Post, to a young friend, he wrote:

“Now you might want to know how I am getting along, or the author of the enclosed trash ought at least to say what he is doing of importance. Well, he is the slave of a usurer. During the very cheap times of 1865 he bought land, about six acres. He took clay from the soil and burned it to make farm buildings. His brother, previously a bookdealer, cultivated the garden, but he was lacking in the severity and composure necessary for this kind of work. And so I have had to work like a giant since 1865 in order to pay the interest on the borrowed capital. The patience of the giant is now coming to an end.”

And a few years later the old man broke down completely.

Thus the Hegelian philosophy did not die in the young Hegelians, but on the contrary they died in the Hegelian philosophy. Marx and Engels were saved because they broke completely with the “old decrepit widow who ornamented and painted a body, shriveled into a most loathsome abstraction, and went about crying through all Germany for a freethinker.” Of this philosophy they retained only the dialectical method which Hegel himself had taken over from Greek philosophy and which Marx and Engels stood right side up. But they dismissed once for all the “spirit-motivating” idea, and things of a like character. Engels later completely expressed their position in this sentence:

“What is still left over of the entire previous philosophy is the study of thought and its laws – formal logic and the dialectic. Everything else has become the positive science of nature and history.”

If we should disregard the question how far they themselves were responsible for bringing it along this path, history has shown them to be right, in that since the days of the Communist Manifesto and the Revolution of 1848 philosophy has not influenced in the least the historical development of the German nation, except when it squeaked along as a fifth wheel of the wagon of reaction. We disregard entirely the state established and paid professors of philosophy who naturally must do their duty, i.e. extol the ruling class. But concerning the other philosophers, whom one cannot deny to have been, in their way, independent minds, they have always jogged, scolding, behind the rolling wagon of history. One has only to remember Schopenhauer, Eduard v. Hartmann, Nietzsche. Certainly one must admit that Schopenhauer was a talented man, and Nietzsche a bit of a poet, but what was their position on the significant questions agitating their time? Schopenhauer rationalized concerning the Revolution of 1848 with the complete stupidity of a stunted petty bourgeois. Hartmann praised the law against the Socialists, and Nietzsche condemned socialism with the outworn commonplaces of capitalist exploitation, with phrases which a travelling salesman would hardly use at a beer table.

One can think of no more striking proof of this than that there is no future any more for this “entire philosophy of the past.” Its reputation, to use the words of Marx, consisted in this: that it was the fruit of its time and its people “whose subtlest, rarest and most imperceptible flavor was expressed in the ideas of philosophy.” Or one can even say of it what Lassalle once said of the parliaments of the great French Revolution, that it always stood upon the highest theoretical point of its time, that in its time no thought was authentic which had not moved its pulse. This applies as much to the Hollander, Spinoza, to the Englishmen, Hobbes, Locke and Hume, to the Frenchmen, Holbach and Helvetius, as to the Germans, Kant, Fichte and Hegel. And now compare the position of Schopenhauer, Hartmann and Nietzsche upon everything which agitated the German world in the second half of the nineteenth century.

It is true that within the bourgeois classes there has arisen a more or less strong opposition against them. Nevertheless, they have not known anything better to propose than flight into the past. At first it was: Back to Kant, and after this call died a natural death, there came the “Rebirth of Hegelian Philosophy” which was, if possible, even more nonsensical. Insofar as Friedrich Albert Lange undertook the trek back to Kant, he wished to get out of the misty sea of the romantic philosophy of the concept unto firmer ground. And now since this ground has shown itself to be so deceptive, the plunge back into the sea of mists ought to be the only salvation. But Lange, if he were still living today, would not have joined this retrogressive movement. He had much too clear and logical a mind! In his book concerning the worker and his problems he himself once estimated what would be the result of such a return to past ideologies. He showed, as after-effects of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies, how “certain men of high scientific understanding, who were rooted spiritually in the traditions of the nineteenth century, were deterred because of these effects from considering any fundamental change in social conditions”; in other words, they were political and social reactionaries. In other ways Lange showed the meaninglessness of any return to past ideologies through a sharp criticism of the materialism which Buchner, Molesclrott and Vogt prescribed. This materialism, in fact, was nothing more than a stale concoction of French materialism which had once prepared the. way for the French Revolution.

If ever there was born a man who could salvage philosophy in its traditional meaning of the all-inclusive crown of the sciences, that person was Albert Lange. Besides brilliant advantages of character and of mind, he possessed a special eye for the driving forces of his time, which was so entirely lacking in Schopenhauer, Hartmann and Nietzsche. But, for this very reason, he should become an even more powerful witness for the fact that all of this philosophy of the past has died and cannot be resurrected again. All his criticism directed at philosophical idealism and materialism did not bring Lange to the “highest and final Doubt,” or as Dietzgen so drastically expressed it, into a “most pathetic struggle with the snares of metaphysics.” Without intending any slight to this excellent man whose memory deserves to be held in all honor by the working class, one may compare his philosophic thought to that cock which believed that by marking its beak with chalk it hindered progress. Although Lange knew the works of Marx through and through, he never had even a superficial notion of historical materialism. In his critical history of materialism he does not mention even by a syllable the materialist conception of history.

Can historical materialism, however, which is only a historical method, be an adequate substitute, to the proletariat, for philosophy, always taken in its traditional meaning as a universal and closed Weltanschauung into which all the currents of the natural and material sciences flow? One meets here the well-known “need for metaphysics” which rises up everywhere; and it cannot be denied that such a need exists in the masses of workers. It is unquestionable that workers often develop a remarkably deep interest and understanding of philosophic questions. And indeed, the interest and understanding is deeper the greater the poverty out of which they labor to raise themselves. Also it cannot be doubted that the satisfaction of this need is a powerful and essential means by which the working class makes itself more efficient and skilled for the fulfillment of its historical tasks.

However, this “need for metaphysics” has nowhere metaphysical roots. And it would remain dissatisfied even though a new philosophy was brewed out of the holiest and costliest surrogates of the old philosophies. It has, in every case, only historical roots, by means of which it is nourished and with which it dies. These roots, on one side, are the “metaphysical stuff” with which the brains of proletarian children in the public schools are oppressed, in the brutal and vulgar form of incomprehensible biblical texts and songs from the song books; and, on the other side, the soulless character of modern mass production, mechanical labor, which by its eternal monotony emancipates the spirit of the worker and leads him to philosophize over the meaninglessness of this existence, which from infancy has been impressed upon him as the work of a supernatural power.

Highly instructive contributions to these problems are found in a small collection of letters by workers which appeared under the title Out of the Deep (Morgenverlag, Berlin 1909). We give one example from the letters of Bergmann, who had worked his way up out of the lowest depths of the proletariat:

“I wish to be free from the dogmas of dualism dictatorially commanded, free from servility. My philosophy is the autocracy of the spirit ... Is this civilization, when the intelligence dies physically a horrible death? Is this humanity, when the soul goes hungry? When its desires thirst, languishing for beauty and power? I demand a remedy! The plow, the chisel, the trowel in the sinewy fist, but this fist belongs to a man. Watch over it! The pen, the lyre, the telescope belong to the cycle of the spirit. Do not forbid these! For the suppressed talent bitterly avenges itself ... Thought, in my world, is a cause of suffering, because through thought I know how needy and unfortunate I am. Were the veil of ignorance still over my spiritual eyes, truly my heart would feel only half as much the travail of earthly suffering. I have entered completely into the Marxist idea that economic poverty is just as much the basis for the degeneration of the spirit of a people as of their body, and that only a life half-way free from worry will allow man to blossom into a complete personality. How else could it happen that, until now, only the materially secure (I will not say absolutely, but relatively) formed the circle of the artistic elite? Whilst much valuable talent was murdered under the base pressure of economic calamity, or better said, remained in embryo? Man is matter; is stuff; his spirit exists in a material organization and wherever physical nourishment necessarily has to be obtained only through externalized power, claiming everything, there falls away the spirit-enlivening element which fructifies the soul. Such a person, naturally, is absorbed entirely with the struggle around the ordinary problems of the stomach. He is, and remains, considered from this point of view, the animal in whom the spiritual personality is a farce. Here is found the great, ignominious and cardinal flaw in the multitude of mankind today.”

Although it would be tempting to transcribe pages and pages of these confessions of workers concerning their “need for metaphysics,” this example ought to be sufficient.

One sees from this that modern workers, even when they – thanks to our honorable public schools – cannot write correctly, either grammatically or orthographically, nevertheless have understood old Kant very well. They understand how to philosophize, but they wish to know nothing of a single philosophy, whether it be the “dualism” of philosophical idealism or of the “ordinary problem of the stomach” of philosophical materialism. What they have “completely absorbed” is the “Marxist idea,” i. e. historical materialism, which can in fact fully satisfy their “metaphysical needs” not through a new philosophy, but through a history of philosophy, written in accordance with the historical-materialist method.

It would not be difficult to write that history, for, as Schopenhauer correctly says, all previous philosophy revolves about certain fundamental ideas which always return. But how they return, out of what causes, in what form and under what circumstances, to determine this requires an ever more precise scientific instrument. And we will not be able to count on this for a long time to come. Therefore all the more ought we to avoid bringing philosophic speculation and playthings into the proletarian class struggle, whose metaphysical need, in its dark impetus, knows much better the right road.


Last updated on 7.2.2006