Society and Mind in Marxian Philosophy. Anton Pannekoek 1937


Marx’s theory of social development is known as the “materialistic conception of history” or “historical materialism.” Before Marx the word “materialism” had long been used in opposition to idealism, for whereas idealistic philosophical systems assumed some spiritual principle, some “Absolute Idea” as the primary basis of the world, the materialistic philosophies proceeded from the real material world. In the middle of the nineteenth century, another kind of materialism was current which considered physical matter as the primary basis from which all spiritual and mental phenomena must be derived. Most of the objections that have been raised against Marxism are due to the fact that it has not been sufficiently distinguished from this mechanical materialism.

Philosophy is condensed in the well-known quotation “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” Marxism is not concerned with the antithesis matter-mind; it deals with the real world and the ideas derived therefrom. This real world comprises everything observable – that is, all that by observation may be declared an objective fact. The wage-relations between workman and employer, the constitution of the United States, the science of mathematics, although not consisting of physical matter, are quite as real and objective as the factory machine, the Capitol or the Ohio River. Even ideas themselves in their turn act as real, observable facts. Mechanical materialism assumes that our thoughts are determined by the motions of atoms in the cells of our brains. Marxism considers our thoughts to be determined by our social experience observed through the senses or felt as direct bodily needs.

The world for man is society. Of course, the wider world is nature, and society is nature transformed by man. But in the course of history this transformation was so thorough that now society is the most important part of our world. Society is not simply an aggregate of men; men are connected by definite relations not chosen by them at will, but imposed upon them by the economic system under which they live and in which each has his place.

The relations which the productive system establishes between men have the same stringency as biological facts; but this does not mean that men think only of their food. It means that the manner in which man earns his living – that is, the economic organization of production – places every individual in determinate relations with his fellow-men thus determining his thinking and feeling. It is true, of course, that even up to the present nearly all the thoughts of men have been orientated around the getting of food, because a livelihood has never been assured for everybody. The fear of want and hunger has weighed like a nightmare on the minds of men. But, in a socialist system, when this fear will have been removed, when mankind will be master of the means of subsistence, and thinking will be free and creative, the system of production will also continue to determine ideas and institutions.

The mode of production (Produktionsweise), which forms the mind of man, is, at the same time, a product of man. It has been built up by mankind during the course of centuries, everyone participating in its development. At any given moment, its structure is determined by given conditions, the most important of which are technics and law. Modern capitalism is not simply production by large scale machinery; it is production by such machines under the rule of private property. The growth of capitalism was not only a change from an economy utilizing small tools to large scale industry, but at the same time, a development of the guild-bound craftsmen into wage laborers and businessmen. A system of production is a determinate system of technics regulated for the benefit of the owners by a system of juridical rules.

The oft-quoted thesis of the German jurist, Stammler, that law determines the economic system (“das Recht bestimmt die Wirtschaft"), is based upon this circumstance. Stammler thought that by this sentence he had refuted Marxism, which proclaimed the dominance of economics over juridical ideas. By proclaiming that the material element, the technical side of the labor process, is ruled and dominated by ideological elements, the juridical rules by which men regulate their relations at their own will, Stammler felt convinced that he had established the predominance of mind over matter. But the antithesis technics-law does not coincide at all with the antithesis matter-mind. Law is not only spiritual rule but also hard constraint, not only an article on the statute books, but also the club of the policeman and the walls of the jail. And technics is not only the material machines but also the power to construct them, including the science of physics.

The two conditions, technics and law, play different roles in determining the system of production.. The will of those who control technics cannot by itself create these technics, but it can, and does, make the laws. They are voluntary, but not capricious. They do not determine productive relations, but take advantage of these relations for the benefit of the owners and they are altered to meet advances in the modes of production. Manufacture using the technics of small tools led to a system of craft production, thus making the juridical institution of private property necessary. The development of big industry made the growth of large scale machinery possible and necessary, and induced people to remove the juridical obstacles to its development and to establish laissez-faire trade legislation. In this way technics determines law; it is the underlying force, whereas law belongs to the superstructure resting on it. Thus Stammler, while correct in his thesis in a restricted sense, is wrong in the general sense. Just because law rules economics, people seek to make such laws as are required by a given productive equipment; in this way technics determines law. There is no rigid, mechanical, one-to-one dependence. Law does not automatically adjust itself to every new change of technics. The economic need must be felt and then man must change and adjust his laws accordingly. To achieve this adjustment is the difficult and painful purpose of social struggles. It is the quintessence and aim of all political strife and of all great revolutions in history. The fight for new juridical principles is necessary to form a new system of production adapted to the enormous modern development of technics.

Technics as the productive force is the basis of society. In primitive society, the natural conditions play the chief role in determining the system of production. In the course of history technical implements are gradually improved by almost imperceptible steps. Natural science, by investigating the forces of nature, develops into the important productive force. All the technicalities in developing and applying science, including the most abstract mathematics, which is to all appearances an exercise in pure reason, may therefore be reckoned as belonging to the technical basis of the system of production, to what Marx called the “productive forces.” In this way material (in a physical sense) and mental elements are combined in what Marxists call the material basis of society.

The Marxian conception of history puts living man in the center of its scheme of development, with all his needs and all his powers, both physical and mental. His needs are not only the needs of his stomach (though these are the most imperative), but also the needs of head and heart. In human labor, the material, physical side and the mental side are inseparable; even the most primitive work of the savage is brain work as much as muscle work. Only because under capitalism the division of labor separated these two parts into functions of different classes, thereby maiming the capacities of both, did intellectuals come to overlook their organic and social unity. In this way, we may understand their erroneous view of Marxism as a theory dealing exclusively with the material side of life.