Society and Mind in Marxian Philosophy. Anton Pannekoek 1937


Marx’s historical materialism is a method of interpretation of history. History consists of the deeds, the actions of men. What induces these actions? What determines the activity of man?

Man, as an organism with certain needs which must be satisfied as conditional to his existence, stands within a surrounding nature, which offers the means to satisfy them. His needs and the impressions of the surrounding world are the impulses, the stimuli to which his actions are the responses, just as with all living beings. In the case of man, consciousness is interposed between stimulus and action. The need as it is directly felt, and the surrounding world as observed through the senses, work upon the mind, produce thoughts, ideas and aims, stimulate the will and put the body in action.

The thoughts and aims of an active man are considered by him as the cause of his deeds; he does not ask where these thoughts come from. This is especially true because thoughts, ideas and aims are not as a rule derived from the impressions by conscious reasoning, but are the product of subconscious spontaneous processes in our minds. For the members of a social class, life’s daily experiences condition, and the needs of the class mold, the mind into a definite line of feeling and thinking, to produce definite ideas about what is useful and what is good or bad. The conditions of a class are life necessities to its members, and they consider what is good or bad for them to be good or bad in general. When conditions are ripe men go into action and shape society according to their ideas. The rising French bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century, feeling the necessity of laissez-faire laws, of personal freedom for the citizens, proclaimed freedom as a slogan, and in the French Revolution conquered power and transformed society.

The idealistic conception of history explains the events of history, as caused by the ideas of men. This is wrong, in that it confuses the abstract formula with a special concrete meaning, overlooking the fact that, for example, the French bourgeoisie wanted only that freedom that was good for itself. Moreover, it omits the real problem, the origin of these ideas. The materialistic conception of history explains these ideas as caused by the social needs arising from the conditions of the existing system of production. According to this view, the events of history are determined by forces arising out of the existing economic system. The historical materialist’s interpretation of the French Revolution in terms of a rising capitalism which required a modern state with legislation adapted to its needs does not contradict the conception that the Revolution was brought about by the desire of the citizen for freedom from restraint; it merely goes further to the root of the problem. For historical materialism contends that rising capitalism produced in the bourgeoisie the conviction that economic and political freedom was necessary, and thus awakened the passion and enthusiasm that enabled the bourgeoisie to conquer political power and to transform the state.

In this way Marx established causality in the development of human society. It is not a causality outside of man, for history is at the same time the product of human action. Man is a link in the chain of cause and effect; necessity in social development is a necessity achieved by means of human action. The material world acts upon man, determines his consciousness, his ideas, his will, his actions, and so he reacts upon the world and changes it. To the traditional middle-class mode of thinking this is a contradiction – the source of endless misrepresentations of Marxism. Either the actions of man determine history, they say, and then there is no necessary causality because man is free; or if, as Marxism contends, there is causal necessity it can only work as a fatality to which man has to submit without being able to change. For the materialistic mode of thinking, on the contrary, the human mind is bound by a strict causal dependence to the whole of the surrounding world.

The thoughts, the theories, the ideas, that former systems of society have thus wrought in the human mind, have been preserved for posterity, first in material form in subsequent historical activity. But they have also been preserved in a spiritual form. The ideas, sentiments, passions and ideals that incited former generations to action were laid down in literature, in science, in art, in religion and in philosophy. We come into direct contact with them in the study of the humanities. These sciences belong to the most important fields of research for Marxian scholars; the differences between the philosophies, the literatures, the religions of different peoples in the course of centuries can only be understood in terms of the molding of men’s minds through their societies, that is, through their systems of production. It has been said above, that the effects of society upon the human mind have been deposited in material form in subsequent historical events. The chain of cause and effect of past events which proceeds from economic needs to new ideas, from new ideas to social action, from social action to new institutions and from new institutions to new economic systems is complete and ever reenacted. Both original cause and the final effect are economic and we may reduce the process to a short formula by omitting the intermediate terms which involve the activity of the human mind. We can then illustrate the truth of Marxian principles by showing how, in actual history, effect follows cause. In analyzing the present, however, we see numerous causal chains which are not finished. When society works upon the minds of men, it often produces ideas, ideals and theories which do not succeed in arousing men to social or class-motivated action, or fail to bring about the necessary political, juridical and economic changes. Frequently too, we find that new conditions do not at once impress themselves upon the mind. Behind apparent simplicities lurk complexities so unexpected that only a special instrument of interpretation can uncover them at the moment. Marxian analysis enables us to see things more clearly. We begin to see that we are inside of a process fraught with converging influences, in the midst of the slow ripening of new ideas and tendencies which constitute the gradual preparation of revolution. This is why it is important to the present generation, which today has to frame the society of tomorrow, to know how Marxian theory may be of use to them, in understanding the events and in determining their own conduct. Hence a more thorough consideration of how society acts upon the mind will be necessary here.