Society and Mind in Marxian Philosophy. Anton Pannekoek 1937


The human mind is entirely determined by the surrounding real world. We have already said that this world is not restricted to physical matter only, but comprises everything that is objectively observable. The thoughts and ideas of our fellow men, which we observe by means of their conversation or by our reading are included in this real world. Although fanciful objects of these thoughts such as angels, spirits or an Absolute Idea do not belong to it, the belief in such ideas is a real phenomenon, and may have a notable influence on historical events.

The impressions of the world penetrate the human mind as a continuous stream. All our observations of the surrounding world, all experiences of our lives are continually enriching the contents of our memories and our subconscious minds.

The recurrence of nearly the same situation and the same experience leads to definite habits of action; these are accompanied by definite habits of thought. The frequent repetition of the same observed sequence of phenomena is retained in the mind and produces an expectation of the sequence. The rule that these phenomena are always connected in this way is then acted upon. But this rule – sometimes elevated to a law of nature – is a mental abstraction of a multitude of analogous phenomena, in which differences are neglected, and agreement emphasized. The names by which we denote definite similar parts of the world of phenomena indicate conceptions which likewise are formed by taking their common traits, the general character of the totality of these phenomena, and abstracting them from their differences. The endless diversity, the infinite plurality of all the unimportant, accidental traits, are neglected and the important, essential characteristics are preserved. Through their origin as habits of thought these concepts become fixed, crystallized, invariable; each advance in clarity of thinking consists in more exactly defining the concepts in terms of their properties, and in more exactly formulating the rules. The world of experience, however, is continually expanding and changing; our habits are disturbed and must be modified, and new concepts substituted for old ones. Meanings, definitions, scopes of concepts all shift and vary.

When the world does not change very much, when the same phenomena and the same experiences always return, the habits of acting and thinking become fixed with great rigidity; the new impressions of the mind fit into the image formed by former experience and intensify it. These habits and these concepts are not personal but collective property; they are not lost with the death of the individual. They are intensified by the mutual intercourse of the members of the community, who all are living in the same world, and they are transferred to the next generation as a system of ideas and beliefs, an ideology – the mental store of the community. Where for many centuries the system of production does not change perceptibly, as for example in old agricultural societies, the relations between men, their habits of life, their experience of the world remain practically the same. In every new generation living under such a static productive system the existing ideas, concepts and habits of thinking will petrify more and more into a dogmatic, unassailable ideology of eternal truth.

When, however, in consequence of the development of the productive forces, the world is changing, new and different impressions enter the mind which do not fit in with the old image. There then begins a process of rebuilding, out of parts of old ideas and new experiences. Old concepts are replaced by new ones, former roles and judgments are upset, new ideas emerge. Now every member of a class or group is affected in the same way and at the same time. Ideological strife arises in connection with the class struggles and is eagerly pursued, because all the different individual lives are linked in diverse ways with the problem of how to pattern society and its system of production. Under modern capitalism, economic and political changes take place so rapidly that the human mind can hardly keep pace with them. In fierce internal struggles, ideas are revolutionized, sometimes rapidly, by spectacular events, sometimes slowly, by continuous warfare against the weight of the old ideology. In such a process of unceasing transformation, human consciousness adapts itself to society, to the real world.

Hence Marx’s thesis that the real world determines consciousness does not mean that contemporary ideas are determined solely by contemporary society. Our ideas and concepts are the crystallization, the comprehensive essence of the whole of our experience, present and past. What was already fixed in the past in abstract mental forms must be included with such adaptations of the present as are necessary. New ideas thus appear to arise from two sources: present reality and the system of ideas transmitted from the past. Out of this distinction arises one of the most common objections against Marxism. The objection, namely, that not only the real material world, but in no less degree, the ideological elements – ideas, beliefs and ideals – determine man’s mind and thus his deeds, and therefore the future of the world. This would be a correct criticism if ideas originated by themselves, without cause, or from the innate nature of man, or from some supernatural spiritual source. Marxism, however, says that these ideas also must have their origin in the real world under social conditions.

As forces in modern social development, these traditional ideas hamper the spread of new ideas that express new necessities. In taking these traditions into account we need not leave the realm of Marxism. For every tradition is a piece of reality, just as every idea is itself a part of the real world, living in the mind of men; it is often a very powerful reality as a determinant of men’s actions. It is a reality of an ideological nature that has lost its material roots because the former conditions of life which produced them have since disappeared. That these traditions could persist after their material roots have disappeared is not simply a consequence of the nature of the human mind, which is capable of preserving in memory or subconsciously the impressions of the past. Much more important is what may be termed the social memory, the perpetuation of collective ideas, systematized in the form of prevailing beliefs and ideologies, and transferred to future generations in oral communications, in books, in literature, in art and in education. The surrounding world which determines the mind consists not only of the contemporary economic world, but also of all the ideological influences derived from continuous intercourse with our fellow men. Hence comes the power of tradition, which in a rapidly developing society causes the development of the ideas to lag behind the development of society. In the end tradition must yield to the power of the incessant battering of new realities. Its effect upon social development is that instead of permitting a regular gradual adjustment of ideas and institutions in line with the changing necessities, these necessities when too strongly in contradiction with the old institutions, lead to explosions, to revolutionary transformations, by which lagging minds are drawn along and are themselves revolutionized.