MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




Activity is purposive movement of any kind, in particular, human actions. Activity differs from ‘praxis’ because there is no implication that Activity is guided by Theory, only that it is motivated and at least potentially self-conscious (i.e., excluding autonomous physiological processes in the body). Socialists take activity as the basic substance of our philosophy, rather than matter and motion, which are the substances of a mechanical or natural-scientific view of the world.

The idea of Activity originated with Johann Gottfried Herder’s critique of Spinoza in the 1780s. At that time, Spinoza was a ‘dead dog’; condemned as an Atheist, Spinoza was simply not discussed. Along with Lessing and Goethe, Herder was also a Pantheist like Spinoza and in his book “God, some Conversations,” Herder not only rehabilitated Spinoza, but claimed that Spinoza’s conception of God/Nature was mechanical, failed to overcome Descartes’s dualism, and as a determinist philosophy he had left human beings subject to unalterable fate, at best capable of knowing their fate and participating in it.

Herder claimed instead that God/Nature was active: Nature was full of opposing forces, conflict and striving. As a result, human beings, as part of that, were not subject to a mechanically determined fate, but participated in an active struggle to realize their own ends.

The idea of Activity was then taken up by Johann Gottlieb Fichte in the 1790s, as a means of overcoming the subject/object dualism in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Fichte was an avowed Atheist and supporter of the extreme Left in the French Revolution. He built his system on the “I,” which was “pure Activity.” Because Activity was both subjective (being nothing but the manifestation of will) and objective (since it was manifested as practical action in the world outside the I, Activity was a subject-object, not depending on Kant’s fundamental division of the world into subject and thing-in-itself.

Hegel accepted Fichte’s conception of the I as pure activity, but claimed that it was wrong to try to deduce the nature of the state, as Fichte did, from the individual, when on the contrary, the nature of the individual had to be deduced from the nature of the community of which they were a part, and their Activity within that community. Here Hegel was in agreement with Herder. However, Hegel conceived the Activity of people en masse, like this, as Spirit, utilising Herder’s notions of Zeitgeist (Spirit of the Times) and Volksgeist (the Spirit of a People), which exerts itself independently of the will of the individual actors. Thus in Hegel’s philosophy of Spirit, Activity disappeared out of sight.

Moses Hess, a follower of Fichte, and admirer of Babeuf (the first communist in history), developed a philosophy of the Deed, in which the volitional character of Activity was brought back to the foreground in a radical form of communism. Hess worked with Marx in the early 1840s, with the result that Marx used Hess’s concept of Activity in his own appropriation of Hegel to critique the materialist Feuerbach.

Marx’s concept of Activity is outlined in “Theses on Feuerbach,” where Marx emphasises the social character of Activity, as opposed to the individualistic nature with which Fichte and Hess had understood it: Activity was participation in social Activity and an expression of human social being. Marx did not further develop this idea, but it underlay all his subsequent work in political economy and his political work.

The idea of Activity was further developed by Lev Vygotsky in his Psychology, as well as being taken in their own way by American Pragmatists such as Mead. Vygotsky specifically emphasised the importance of artefacts, products of social activity, expressing social norms for the achievement of social ends. Cultural artefacts acted as mediating elements inherently social activity. By the use of cultural products, such as words, tools, images, gestures, etc., and by acting in collaboration with other people, an individual person develops themselves as a part of the social group and at the same time as appropriating its culture, modifies and adds to the culture.

Vygotsky did not finally resolve however, the problem of the motivation of Activity, which always lies outside the immediate sphere of an individual’s action, and differs from the personal meaning the action has for the individual.

This problem was tackled by A. N. Leontyev, who introduced a three-level structure of Activity; (1) Operations, which are actions which have become unconscious and automatic, so long as everything proceeds ‘without a hitch’; (2) (Artefact-mediated, collaborative) Actions, such as already envisaged by Vygotsky; and (3) (Socially determined) Activities, that is, institutions or social functions of some kind that the individual finds already at hand in the society in which they are active. A N Leontyev’s conception had lost, however, the “active” or subjective aspect which had originally stimulated its introduction by Herder: for Leontyev, Actions were carried out in pursuit of an Object, which is given to the Subject (i.e., individual organism) and the object is dominant and determinative in relation to the Subject (subject to conditions). In a sense then, Spinoza’s fatalism had been restored in pursuit of an objectivist materialism, such as Marx criticized in his Theses on Feuerbach.

Some of the problems in Leontyev’s version of Activity have been corrected by Yjrö Engeström, who sees Activity within a system of relations between individuals, nature and the community, mediated by means of production, norms/rules and division of labour. However, the concept of Activity as a basic concept of human life has now been lost in the usual mass of interlocking, mutually interdependent entities.

A new, Marxist conception of Activity is needed.



A philosophical concept concerned with the development of processes and conceptions. In social and natural processes, Actuality refers to all the conditions for something, both essential and inessential coming together, and a thing going beyond being a potentiality and becoming a “reality” [ – Reality is a synonym for Actuality].

In Hegel’s Logic, as the third stage of Essence, Actuality is the completion of the genesis of the Notion, in which all the contradictions of this genesis are concentrated leading up to the formation of the Notion. Hegel sees Actuality as the dialectic of possibility & contingency, of Cause & Effect and ultimately of Freedom & Necessity.

In cognition, Actuality refers to understanding something to the point where all the causes and effects are understood in their interconnection with each other and the immediate given form of the thing is understood fully as identical to its existent essential content.

Further Reading: The section on Actuality in Hegel’s Logic, or Hegel’s Outline of Logic and Actuality (Cause & Effect).