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Sydney Hook

Marx and Feuerbach

(April 1936)

From New International, Vol. 3 No. 2, April 1936, pp. 47–57.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THROUGHOUT the preceding studies the relationship between Marx and Feuerbach has received peripheral mention. In the following pages I wish to examine this relationship more closely, particularly the advance which Marx’s work represented, according to his own conception, over Feuerbach. The foregoing has already made clear, I hope, that Marx, in the decisive years between 1841 and 1844, was a Feuerbachian – to be sure, with critical reservations. Die Heilige Familie was written in behalf of the philosophy of “real humanism” – phrase directly out of Feuerbach. In the unpublished papers of 1844, which appeared under the title of Philosophische-ökonomische Fragmenten (in the Gesamtausgabe, Abt. I, Bd. 3, pp. 33–172) the Feuerbachian influence is even more perceptible. [1] And in the very manuscript in which he definitely breaks with Feuerbach, Die deutsche Ideologie (1845–1846), we find a warm defense of Feuerbach against the attacks made upon him by Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. Feuerbachian elements, not to mention characteristic modes of expression, abound even in the maturest works of Marx. Like Feuerbach, Marx calls for a reconstruction of philosophy as a method of approaching the practical problems of men. Like Feuerbach, he regards human beings in their empirical social contexts as the carriers of the cultural process. Like Feuerbach, he explains the false traditional conceptions of the world in terms of fetishistic expressions of activities unconsciously engaged in at different times and periods.

What fundamentally separates Marx from Feuerbach is his historical approach and his concrete analysis of those factors of social life which appear in Feuerbach only as abstractions. Another way of putting this is to say that Marx differs from Feuerbach even where he adopts Feuerbachian principles in the stress he places upon the dialectical method and the concrete application he makes of it. On several occasions he specifically reproaches Feuerbach for his lack of dialectic and goes so far as to attribute to him a share of the responsibility for the neglect by contemporaries of the rational kernel of Hegel’s method. [2] Feuerbach had simply repudiated Hegel’s philosophy without attempting to disengage Hegel’s methodological insights from his systematic errors. Marx himself died before he could write the materialistic dialectic in which he had planned to criticize, in immanent detail, the logic of Hegel. But the methodology of his work as well as his explicit criticisms of Feuerbach suffice to provide the main outlines of his philosophy. Since Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach preceded his own constructive achievements, they are of greater importance in tracing the development of Marx’s thought.

The real significance of Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach has not been adequately grasped by the overwhelming majority of his zealous and “orthodox” disciples. They have failed to understand Marx because to most of them the philosophy of Feuerbach has been a sealed book. Here as well as in other important works of Marx the very language used will mislead the reader unacquainted with the technical jargon of those whom Marx criticized. Because I believe that Marx’s critical theses on Feuerbach represent in nuce a turning point in the history of philosophy, I propose to adopt a method of exposition which may strike the reader as pedantic but which will at least put him in a position where he can control my interpretations by the text of Marx’s remarks. Instead of giving a discursive description of Marx’s views, I shall draw upon relevant passages from Die deutsche Ideologie.

Thesis I.:

“The chief defect of all previous materialism – including Feuerbach’s – is that the object, reality, sensibility, is conceived only in the form of the object or as conception, but not as human sensory activity, practice (Praxis) not subjectively. That is why it happened that the active side [of the object], in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism – but only abstractly, for idealism, naturally, does not know real, sensory activity as such. Feuerbach wants to recognize sensory objects which are really differentiated from objects of thought, but he does not conceive human activity itself as an objective activity. Consequently in the Essence of Christianity, he regards only the theoretical attitude as the truly human one, while practise is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-Jewish form. Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of practical-critical, activity.”

There are two different points made by Marx here which must be noted and clarified. The first is Marx’s criticism against all materialisms from Democritus to Feuerbach; the second, is his criticism of the attempted Feuerbachian solution of the difficulty which Feuerbach in common with all other materialists faces. The first raises the question to what extent the mind, or since Marx, like Feuerbach, does not separate the mind from the body – to what extent man is active in knowing. The second presents the distinctively Marxian conception of Praxis.

Marx was a close student of ancient and modern materialism. His dissertation concerned itself with the difference between the Epicurean and the Democritean philosophies of nature. He was at home, as his short excursion in Die Heilige Familie into the history of materialism shows, with modern materialisms. He could trace down to its finest nuances the influence of Cartesian rationalism and Locke’s empiricism upon French medical theory out of which the materialistic sensationalism of the Encyclopaedists developed. He followed with keen interest the progress of the biological sciences in the 18th century. In all of these philosophies he finds one fundamental defect, an inability to explain the facts of perception and knowledge – in short, of meaningful consciousness.

No matter what form traditional materialism took, it explained not only the composition of man’s body but the contents of his mind as resultant effects of elements and energies streaming into him from without. The human mind was conceived as passive and plastic. Even where, as in Locke, the mind was endowed with certain powers by which it combined the original ideas derived from without, there was no adequate recognition of the part which human beings played in reacting upon, altering, and transforming their environment. Since materialism, operating with a simple cause-effect relationship, could not account for the redirective activity of man, it could not account for the actualities of human thinking and its practical fruits. At most it pictured thinking as a private, subcutaneous reflection upon what had already happened, an incandescent after-glow – beautiful, perhaps, in design and color, but absolutely impotent to affect the course of things.

The corrective to this “scientific” way of explaining mind away came not from the materialists themselves but from the idealists. Despite the fantastic and, literally construed, unintelligible constructions of the German idealists from Kant to Hegel, their great contribution was their insight into the essential activity of mind. Here is no place to repeat the arguments of Marx against the vagaries of all idealistic schools but it must be remembered that when he broke with idealism, it was not in order to return to the simple materialism which made thinking appear to be either unnecessary or miraculous, but to provide a materialistic basis for the genuine discoveries the idealists made in their analysis of consciousness. That is why both Marx and Engels regarded themselves as the heirs of whatever was sound in the classic German philosophic tradition. Stripped of all distorting elements the contribution of idealism consists in the illumination it sheds upon the relation between the acts of consciousness and the contents of consciousness. Not only the simplest thought but even the simplest perception cannot be plausibly explained as an effect of a mechanical impulse, for the very description of the mechanical impulse as an object of knowledge presupposes some active subject who approaches it with this category rather than that, with a whole set of values, assumptions, memories and anticipations which, whatever their origin, now contribute to what is seen and thought. The idealists saw correctly that in what-was-given-to-knowledge something was involved about the subject-to-which-it-was-given. Their errors arise out of attempts to deduce the very existence and character of the given from the activity of mind, and from the fatal step by which the relatively autonomous activity of mind became transformed into absolute independence of complex material conditions.

In mythological form, Hegel had described in his Phänomenologie des Geists and Logik, the way in which objects and subjects were reconstituted in an interacting process whose constituent elements were materials, furnished by nature and previous history, and activities, resulting from the psycho-physical powers of man in some historical context. In mythological form, I repeat, because the whole process was supposed to have transpired in a timeless divine Subject. Feuerbach had riddled the conception of a divine Subject by showing that in so far as the predicates of the divine Subject were meaningful, they were nothing more than representations of the powers of the human mind, expressed in the language of metaphor and hyperbole. The secret of the growth of the divine Subject of self-consciousness was declared to be nothing more than the development of the mind of man. But Feuerbach’s abstract conception of man and his disregard of the historical factors conditioning the emergence of the human mind led him to a blank confrontation of nature and man which generated the same insoluble problems that had plagued earlier materialists. They had wrestled with the antithesis between “things and consciousness,” and ended in a blind alley because they could not get any process started between the two except by dissolving the latter into the former. Feuerbach, despite the overtones of natural piety in his writings, began by contraposing “man and nature”, too. When he projected his solution of the opposition, he oscillated between an unbridged dualism, the natural and the human, and a reduction of the natural to a form of human sensibility.

Both materialists and idealists had taken as the pre-suppositions of their philosophy a relatively fixed element – matter in the one case, the subject in the other – to serve as a starting point for the development observable in nature, man and society. Marx’s own starting point was not presuppositionless. But since he was attempting not to deduce history but to discover the rhythms of its flow, he avoided introducing as an explanatory principle abstractions which had no empirical function, and which could not be vindicated by observing the ways in which human beings actually behaved.

“The presuppositions with which we begin,” he writes in Die deutsche Ideologie, “are not arbitrary; they are not dogmas. They are real presuppositions from which we can abstract ourselves only in imagination. They are individuals as they actually are, their actions, and their material conditions of life – those which they find at hand as well as those which their own activity produces. These presuppositions are observable in purely empirical fashion.” (Gesamtausgabe, Abt. I, Bd. 5, p. 10.)

Feuerbach, too, had said that man was the presupposition of his philosophy. But what kind of man? “Essential man” – not men as they existed here and now, in city and country, in high estate or low – but man as such, realiter, a kind of man in which “a band of scrofulous, work-worn, starving men” were equal to all other men, a type of man in the light of whose meaning all historical differences between individuals, groups, and classes were superficial accidents. Marx, too, starts with human beings but with human beings understood “not in a fantastic fixity and completeness, but in their real, empirical, perceptual process of development. As soon as their active life process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts, as it still is among abstract empiricists, or an imaginary activity of imaginary subjects as among the idealists” (Ibid., p. 16).

To say that human beings must be the starting point of any attempt to understand history, is to say that human needs must constitute the starting point of all inquiry. Again, not the abstract needs of Feuerbach but the primary needs of production, reproduction, communication. The gratification of these needs requires the discovery of instruments which are partly the cause and partly the result of an increasingly pervasive division of labor in social life. But the very processes of gratifying old needs gives rise to new needs, – technological, psychological, and spiritual. The movement of history is not imposed from without by the creative fiat of an Absolute Mind nor is it the result of a dynamic urge within matter. It develops out of the redirective activity of human beings trying to meet their natural and social needs. Human history may be viewed as a process in which new needs are created as a result of material changes instituted to fulfill the old. According to Marx, the whole of theoretical culture, including science, arises either directly or indirectly as an answer to some social want or lack. The change in the character and quality of human needs including the means of gratifying them, is the keynote not merely to historical change but to the changes of human nature.

The concrete needs of men is the true middle term for Marx between nature and history. The possibility of having needs and satisfying them, that which makes men need-ful creatures, has its explanation in the physical environment of men and the biological structure of his body. The specific forms through which these needs both of the senses and the mind are gratified, as well as the development of these needs, are attributable to man’s social organization. The interaction between physical conditions and social organization is history. Philosophies themselves are critical historical activities which arise to fill some social need [3], prevail among those groups that recognize them as a justification of their way of life, and systematize the unconscious principles and prejudices by which men attempt to direct life. Men, conditioned as they are by their environment, can change that environment or preserve it, because human activity, including thought, is an objective activity having objective effects.

Surely, the critical reader will protest, is not a great deal of this already contained in Feuerbach’s philosophy? Does not Marx’s thought reduce itself to a filling in of details in a position whose chief outlines were laid down by Feuerbach? This brings us to the more specific criticism which Marx makes against Feuerbach’s theory of practise (Praxis).

The last two sentences of the first gloss on Feuerbach contrast Feuerbach’s contemplative or purely theoretical attitude towards life with Marx’s “critical, practical” standpoint. They also contrast Feuerbach’s “dirty Jewish” [4] conception of practise with what Marx regards as a true one. For purposes of exposition these two contrasts may be discussed independently. The first very briefly, for it arises again in a subsequent thesis.

In rejecting Feuerbach’s identification of the theoretical attitude with the human attitude, Marx is criticizing him not so much for his inadequate materialism as for his vestigial idealism. It is one thing to overcome the idealistic hypostasis of different phases of temporal activity by demanding a return to the facts of experience. It is quite another to carry out the necessary reform and be faithful in the analysis to one’s own program. Feuerbach, because of his unhistorical and abstract conception of man, needs, object, community and communism, sins against his own program and relapses into idealism. He holds up against the existing order an ideal of what man should be, of man as he could have been at any time and any place, of the essential man. Since this ideal is not related to the concrete needs of men in the concrete social situations in which they find themselves, it can provide no leverage with which to change the existing state of affairs. Unable to make a practise, a revolutionary and revolutionizing practise, of his ideal – Feuerbach makes a religion of it. Indeed, for Marx, the religious attitude consists in the belief in, or worship of, unhistorical abstractions. All thought, all conceptions, arise as generalizations of concrete modes of response to specific historical situations. When they are taken as eternally valid, independently of the possibility of their application to fresh situations, men become victimized by the creations and discoveries of their own minds. Whether they are aware of it or not, they become Platonists, supernaturalists, behind whose backs the world continues in its accustomed way. In Marx’s eyes, the whole theoretical tradition of Western European philosophy with its apotheosis of Reason, its conception that thought has an underived and independent history, its identification of theoretical activity with divine activity, and when divinity was no longer fashionable, with the “highest” type of human activity – all this represented a religious pattern of behavior. This was the ground for his contention that the Young-Hegelians, despite their world shattering phrases and militant atheism, were religious, and that the battles they fought were sectarian episodes in a common religious tradition which they shared with their opponents.

True, Feuerbach never lost sight of human Praxis and its influence upon the development of culture. But precisely because of his abstractions, he could not grasp, maintains Marx, the true Praxis. Feuerbach takes the general form of human Praxis to be the same as the kind of Praxis he examined in his Wesen der Christenthums. There, he points out that religion, too, has a Praxis stemming from the needs of the heart. Its motives were practical, its instruments, prayer and miracle; its character, a cosmic egoism which assumed that the world could be compelled to gratify human desires. Feuerbach was openly disdainful of the narrow practicability concealed in the finery and tinsel of religious ritual. The ritual, imagery and belief of historic religions in his eyes represented a gratification in fancy of what could not be secured in reality, a sublimated expression of the animal needs and animal fears of man. The positive religion of the worship of man through love of one another which Feuerbach put in the place of traditional religion was free from religious Praxis. It was enlightened by science and socialism, both very vaguely conceived. In place of the egoism animating the wish to make the world over to our heart’s desire, he set up an unselfishness whose pleasant duty it is to love one’s neighbors to the very death. In place of the miracle and prayer which are the common resort of fearful souls in distress, he defended the ennobling conception of the universality of law, of the eternity of scientific objects, of a cosmic democracy in which all things are equally important – or unimportant. At times Feuerbach seems to oppose to the degraded practicality of man a kind of Spinozistic intellectual love of God. But running through all of his descriptions of the highest form of theoretical knowledge is the belief that man is truly human only when like God he views things sub specie aternitatis. The very fact that man conceived God as an eternal knower was indirect testimony of the value he placed upon the thinking life – for the attributes of God are but the idealized attributes of men.

Marx opposed Feuerbach’s conceptions both of theory and practise. A theory was a guide to action; practise, the specific activities which had to be carried out to test the theory. Practise (Praxis) was something much wider than practicality. It was selective behavior. Its character was not given by personal interests which might or might not have been present but by the skills and techniques, the living traditions and modes of procedure which man brings to whatever he sees and does. Praxis could not be contrasted with science, for science has a Praxis, too. The scientific objects which the scientist studies are essentially related to the practises of scientists. These in turn are related to the basic practises of the culture which supports science. Marx rarely discusses science without underscoring the influence of modern commerce and industry upon its development. Marx’s theory of the Praxis could explain what all other philosophers recognized but which they could not begin to account for, without writing fairy-tales, viz., how knowledge could give power. For Marx knowledge gives power by virtue of the activities it sets up in transforming things in behalf of social needs. The meaning of any theory is ultimately to be found not in what men say but in what it leads them to do or leave undone. Actual or possible Praxis is not only the locus of meaning but also the test of truth. This point is expressed in Marx’s second thesis.


Thesis II:

“The question whether human thought can achieve objective truth is not a question of theory but a practical question. In practise [Praxis] man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality, power and this-sidedness of his thought. The dispute concerning the reality or unreality of thought – which is isolated from practise [Praxis] – is a purely scholastic question.”

To the modern reader these sentences suggest pragmatism but in view of the multiple ambiguity of this term it is advisable to avoid its use and to search more directly for Marx’s meaning. Marx here equates the real and the true, the unreal with the false. Reality cannot therefore in this connection mean existence, since false ideas exist as well as true, Reality has the sense of the “actually” or “genuinely” true, that which is established to be “really” true in the face of critical inquiry and doubt. For idealism, the truth of any idea consists in its coherence with other ideas. Inasmuch as existence was essentially ideal it was possible to discover the truth, although not the whole truth (that was accessible only to Absolute Mind) by developing consistently the logical implications of any meaningful sentence. It is obvious that such a theory of truth could never submit to control by empirical fact, for in the first place, according to its assumptions, there were no “empirical” facts but only logical necessities. Secondly, granting the “appearance” of empirical fact there was no way of telling which of a number of equally consistent theories was true without going outside of the systems of coherent propositions. For example, on what grounds could the consistently developed propositions of a paranoiac be rejected for a more plausible account? Thirdly, since the idealists assumed with Hegel that truth can only be found in the whole, knowledge of everything must be relevant to knowledge of anything else. Numerous other paradoxical consequences flow from this theory which need not be developed here. They can all be deduced from the difficulties mentioned.

Materialism, strictly speaking, did not and could not develop a theory of truth. The very existence of ideas constituted a difficulty which it originally tried to answer by regarding ideas as a tenuous kind of matter, and later, as sense-impressions of varying degrees of complexity resulting from the bombardment of material particles on sensitive nerve-endings. But how could ideas derived in such a way be characterized as true or false? The standard formula which was invoked, viz., that a true idea was one which “agreed” or “corresponded” with its object, raised just as baffling problems. The proper meaning of correspondence presupposed a qualitative identity between the entities corresponding with each other, as e.g., the correspondence between a yard-stick and some other standard measure, or a picture and an original. But what could this common element be? Material? This would mean that ideas would have to be of the same stuff as things. A palpable absurdity! Ideal? The materiality of the world would disappear, and we would be back to Hegel and the coherence theory of truth.

Usually the materialist shifted the problem so that it became a question of what caused ideas. But the difficulties could not be evaded – in fact they were multiplied. False ideas have causes as well as true ideas. What criterion, then, enabled us to distinguish between the two? Further, if ideas are effects, then the question suggests itself what is it that is known, their causes of ideas or the non-material effects themselves? Here, at least two answers were possible. The causes might be known or the effects might be known. If the causes were known, the truth could not consist in an “agreement” between the causes and effects, for causes do not at all have to be like effects, any more than unripe apples necessarily have to resemble the cramps produced by eating them. Some other theory of truth would have to account for the facts of knowledge. If only effects were known, that is to say, if the ideas produced by the molecular agitation of the nervous system, were objects of knowledge, the implications were even more startling. How could effects (ideas) be compared with their causes (things), since according to the supposition of the case, all that our knowledge of causes (things) could consist in was the possession of their effects (ideas). What assurance have we, then, on this view that there are causes of our ideas? To call ideas “effects” of things is question-begging. We are aware of ideas as mental events. They may not be caused at all, or if caused, they may be caused by other mental events, and not at all by things. The indecisiveness of the materialist’s theory of truth leads either to the subjective idealism of Berkeley, viz., only ideas are objects of knowledge, and what we call things or matter is merely a complex of ideas – or to the skepticism of Hume, viz., only ideas are objects of knowledge and there is no telling whether they are caused by something which is not an idea.

Marx’s conception of truth cut under all of these theories. We have seen in a previous study why he rejected subjective idealism as represented by Bruno Bauer. It could not begin to account for the compulsive features of experience. Its solipsism was not only a theoretical reductio ad absurdum, and inconsistent at that, but it mocked the efforts of the working class to liberate itself from poverty and degradation by asserting that these were nothing else than their private constructions. Traditional materialism, although congenial to Marx in its social intent, was muddled both in its theory and practise. By professing to see in all human history and activity nothing but a special case of universal physical categories, and in human thought a mere resultant of mechanical or chemical influences, it made unintelligible the redirective judgments of the revolutionist whose primary aim was to transform the world. Not that Marx was unaware that a great many materialists had been revolutionists and had urged their revolutionary proposals in the name of materialism. In Die Heilige Familie he describes the almost obvious connections which exist between a philosophical theory that explains men’s ignorance, criminality, etc., in terms of their conditions and the gospel of socialism which seeks to eliminate the social factors which make for inhumanity. But in Die deutsche Ideologie he raises two allied questions concerning the theoretical and practical adequacy of this socially enlightened materialism. They concern the possibility of justifying on the materialist view, judgments of value about conditions; and explaining how, if men are completely determined by their environment, they can change that environment. These problems are the subject of the next thesis. But it is clear that in the practical judgments Marx made as a revolutionist, e.g., if certain actions were performed, certain desirable consequences would follow, we have a conspicuous illustration of a type of judgment whose truth could never be established by the idealistic or traditional materialistic theories.

When Marx says that any dispute about the truth or falsity of a judgment which is isolated from Praxis is a scholastic question, he is saying that such questions cannot be answered in principle, that in short, they are no genuine questions at all. The truth of any theory depends upon whether or not the actual consequences which flow from the Praxis initiated to test the theory are such that they realize the predicted consequences. In other words, for Marx all genuine questions are scientifically determinable even though for a variety of reasons we may never know the answer to some of them. Since all judgments are hypotheses, the expectations which enter into the process of discovering the truth about them are not the personal and private expectations of the individual thinker but the public and verifiable expectations which logically flow from the hypotheses entertained. What a man wants to believe is relevant only to what he believes but not to its truth. There is no will to believe in Marx but a will to action in order to test belief and get additional grounds for further action if necessary. What takes place as a result of practise is not a relevant consequence of the theory unless the conditions involved in the meaning of the theory are met. The defeat of the Paris Commune is not a refutation of Marx’s theory of the way political power is to be conquered because the objective conditions presupposed by that theory were absent when the political Praxis occurred.

The continual admonitions of Marx and Engels – and of Lenin and Trotsky, too – that their theories were not to be taken as dogmas – admonitions more honored in the breach than in the observance by most of their reputed followers – warn against accepting beliefs as if they were fixed truths, truths which must be realized independently of the results of Praxis. What must be, come what may, expresses a resolution of the pious believer, not a scientific prediction which depends upon many factors including what the predicter himself does.

Marx did not live to develop the implications of his scientific theory of truth. That is not a ground for denying that he held it. Not only do his glosses on Feuerbach and other writings [5] declare its principal features, but his cardinal doctrines of the class struggle and historical materialism demand it. Part of the reason why Marx did not state it in more precise and detailed form is to be found in his belief that a theory of truth, like any method, is to be judged by the concrete applications made of it. And when it is recalled that Marx wrote not to achieve absolute theoretical clarity but to guide the action of the working class, and that in the light of contemporary standards of analytic rigor almost every field of 19th century thought, including many technical disciplines, fall short of verbal accuracy, only an unhistorical literary prudery will demand that he be judged by our own standards of expression and not by the intent, spirit and fundamental sense of his doctrines.

Thesis III:

“The materialistic doctrine that men are the products of circumstances and education, and that changed men are therefore the products of other circumstances and a changed education, forgets that circumstances are changed by men, and that the educator must himself be educated. Consequently materialism necessarily leads to a division of society into two parts, of which one is elevated above society (e.g., in Robert Owen).

“The coincidence of the transformation of circumstances and of human activity can only be conceived and rationally understood as revolutionizing practise (Praxis).”

This gloss is directed against some contemporary forms of Utopian socialism which despite their materialistic approach to natural phenomena relapsed into idealism in their social and historical theory. The Utopian varieties which were not materialistic in their natural theory, i.e., which were consistently idealistic, are not under discussion. Marx raises the question about Utopian socialism here because he considers Feuerbach to belong to this school. In Die deutsche Ideologie he specifically says of Feuerbach that “in so far as he is a materialist, history does not exist for him, and in so far as he treats of history, he is no materialist” (loc. cit., p.34). In addition, it was crucial for Marx to differentiate clearly between his own realistic theories of social struggle and those of an influential group which professed to have the same ideal goals in view.

Every simple theory of the causal dependence of mind upon matter encounters difficulties just as soon as it hitches that theory to some program of reform or revolution. For a program presupposes a plan which is not yet realized and suggests methods of changing the social world, based upon the causal dependencies established by science, which have not yet been adopted. If every idea or program is a reflection of the existing world, and is only that, how can human action be intelligently guided by some ideal which is yet to be, which outruns existence and lights up a possible path for its future development? After history has run its course, by looking away from the multitude of occasions on which the consequences of human activity have had a redirecting influence on the stream of events, it is easy to argue that human ideals were nothing but passive, mirror-like reflections of antecedent realities – even though analysis discloses such a mode of speech to be metaphysical nonsense. But when human beings are faced by real alternatives of action – i.e., alternatives both of which cannot be realized although both may be attempted, it is impossible to hold that human ideals are “images”. At those moments they are so obviously plans of action!

The Utopian socialists could explain how the state of affairs which they deplored came about. They could also explain why such a state of affairs did not appear deprecative to others. But they could not explain in the slightest their own ideals of social reform. They appeared to themselves as if they were outside of the social process – as if they were historical mutants whose fertilizing ideas would revolutionize the existing order. Other people’s philosophy was determined by circumstances and education but not their own philosophy. And in fact how could it be on their simple materialistic assumptions since their circumstances and conditions were quite similar to those who disagreed with them? That is why Marx properly points out that this mixture of socialism and materialism leads to a belief in a division of society into two parts – one of common-run people whose ideas are simply determined by circumstances and education, the other of choice Utopian spirits who are elevated above society and social laws, the rare gifts of the gods to an errant humanity. The cult of leadership among the Utopian groups, their assumption that they could appeal to any social class, from paupers to princes, for support of their ideals, their belief in a cure-all for every evil including natural stupidity – all flowed from the view that the keys to salvation were in the possession of a handful of right-thinking men – call them saints or scientists or philosophers or social engineers, as you please.

Since it followed from their own doctrines that there was nothing which determined their social ideals, it seemed plausible to the materialistic Utopians that there was no reason why these ideals could not have been embodied in practise at any time, except for chance or ignorance. Some of the Utopians of the 18th century actually defended this view and sketched accounts of what the history would have been if their ideas had prevailed at an earlier time. But most of them, refusing to surrender the rigorous determinism involved in their physical materialism, transferred the determinism to an ideal or conceptual plane. In Hegelian fashion, none the less vicious for being unconscious, they explained the succession of historical ideals as moments in an unending development of Mind. The life history of ideals became the life history of society. In Die deutsche Ideologie Marx calls attention to the process by which men like Stirner, for whom Feuerbach was not materialistic enough, ended up by embracing the philosophy of history of absolute idealism. The process, as described by Marx, consists of three steps:

  1. Dominant historical ideals are cut loose from the complex of social conditions and needs of the dominant classes. “Therewith the domination of these ideals or illusions in history is proclaimed.”
  2. Since certain ideals are connected with others both organically and temporally an order of development is introduced of which the different ideals are successive phases.
  3. To avoid the appearance of mysticism suggested by the notion of an immanent development of ideals, certain individuals are regarded as the carriers of these ideals. These are “the thinkers, ideologists and philosophers” who are conceived as “the makers of history”. “Therewith all materialistic elements have been eliminated from history and one can give free reign to his speculative fancy.” (Ibid., p. 39.)

We have already seen how Marx conceived of the interacting processes between nature, society and man. The development of the forces of production gives rise to new needs. In the struggle to achieve these needs, ideals and principles are forged to guide activity looking towards a transformation of society. These ideals “express” the needs of the groups or classes who rally around them as standards, “express” them in the sense that they are outgrowths not reflections of material conditions of need. The struggle to achieve institutional change produces changes in those who participate in the strugles. The Praxis of trying to bring about a new social order, not abstract doctrine, educates the workers. No messiah can assure them of anything save that which they can win for themselves. Marx’s great insights that human beings cannot change the world without changing themselves, and that the actual social struggles, under certain conditions, is, the best school for acquiring an education in social realities are not isolated thoughts but organically connected with his materialistic theory of history – a theory which in his Die deutsche Ideologie he develops in greater detail than he does in any other writing. In a chapter of the section on Feurbach, entitled by Marx himself, Concerning the Production of Consciousness, he writes of his theory of history:

“This philosophy of history rests upon the development of the real process of production, taking in fact its point of departure from the material production of immediate life, tracing the forms of social intercourse bound up and produced by this mode of production and conceiving civic society in its various stages as the foundation of the whole of history. It also describes civic society in its actions as state power and explains the origins and developing processes of the whole of its various theoretical creations and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, morality, etc. In this way it presents the situation in its totality (and therefore the reciprocal interactions between the various factors upon each other). In any given period this philosophy of history as distinct from the idealist conception does not seek for some category but remains continually upon real historical ground explaining not practice out of ideas but the formation of ideas out of material practice. In this way it reaches the conclusion that all existing forms and products of consciousness can be resolved not through mental criticism, or by being dissolved into ‘self-consciousness’ or transformed into ‘apparitions’, ‘ghosts’, etc., but only through the practical overthrow of the real social relations out of which these idealistic fantasies have developed. It is not criticism but revolution which is the driving force of history – as well as of religion, philosophy and every other theory. This philosophy of history shows that history does not find its end by disappearing into ‘self-consciousness’ or becoming ‘spirit of our spirit’ but that at every stage it is confronted by a material result, a sum of productive forces, an historically created relation to nature and of individuals to each other, which every generation inherits from its predecessors. This mass of productive forces of forms of capital and of circumstances, on the one hand, is modified by the new generation, and on the other hand, prescribes to the new generation its own conditions of life, accounting for its special character and determinate development – showing that circumstances make men as much as men make circumstances. This sum of productive forces, capitals and forms of social intercourse which every individual and every generation finds as something given, is the real source of what philosophers have represented as “substance” and’ “the essence of man”, the real source of what they have hypostasized or struggled against, and whose effects and influences upon the development of men have not in the least been affected by the revolt of the philosophers of “self-consciousness” and “the ego” against it. These given conditions of life of the different generations also decide whether or not the periodically recurring revolutionary upheavals of history are strong enough to overthrow the basis of the existing order. Where these material elements of a total revolution, i.e., on the one hand, the existing productive forces, and on the other, the creation of a revolutionary mass rebelling not merely against individual conditions of existing society but against the whole ‘production of life’ itself, the ‘total activity’, upon which society is based – where these are not present, then it is immaterial for practical development, as the history of communism proves, whether or not the idea of this revolution be proclaimed a hundred times over.” (Gesamtausgabe, Abt. I, Bd. 5, pp. 27–28.)

Thesis IV:

“Feuerbach takes his point of departure from the fact of religious self-alienation, from the splitting up of the world into a religious, imaginary world and a real one. His achievement consists in dissolving the religious world and revealing its secular foundations. He overlooks the fact, however, that after completing this work the chief thing stills remains to be accomplished. The fact that the secular foundation lifts itself above itself and fixates itself as an independent empire beyond the clouds can only be truly explained in terms of the internal division and contradictions of this secular foundation. The latter must first be understood in its contradictions and then through the elimination of the contradictions practically revolutionized. For example, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family it must be theoretically criticized and practically transformed.”

This thesis together with VI and VII contains the main points of Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach’s psychology of religion. Feuerbach had found the essence of religion to be rooted in the human feelings of dependence upon the external forces of the natural and social world, and the chief agencies in the compensatory expression of emotional frustration to be ritual mythology and theology.

Grant, says Marx, that wherever religion is present, it has the characteristic features Feuerbach selects for emphasis. But as an explanation of religious thought and behavior Feuerbach’s theory is inadequate because it is too abstract. It leaves totally unexplained the historical diversity in religous phenomena and contents itself with a mechanical table of needs which different kinds of religion fulfill. For example, if in any religion there prevails a belief in a God who created the world out of nothing, this expresses, according to Feuerbach, the irrational needs of man’s nature. “He deifies nothing but his own irrationality.” (Wesen des Christenthums, Eng. trans, p. 83.) If, on the other hand, we find in any religion a belief in the eternity of the world, then the rational needs of man’s nature are asserting themselves. But Feuerbach never descended from these vague generalities to explain why one, rather than the other of these beliefs, was accepted at any given time. Nor did he ask whether these needs are always invariant in man – and if not, what determines their appearance and disappearance. Supposing further that we grant a fixed need for, or tendency towards irrational expression. Off-hand one can think of a thousand different irrational beliefs, aside from a belief in the creation of the world out of nothing, which could satisfy all the conditions of man’s irrational nature. Why, then, this particular kind of irrational belief and not others?

It is here that Marx’s own psychology of religion comes into view. Religion is not born of a natural, tragic split within the human breast. The real forces impelling men to find satisfaction in some dreamy empire where they enjoy the uncontested power denied them in this life, are not merely phychological but social. The source of religion is to be sought in the antagonisms between the way men actually produce and the traditional, social, legal and moral forms under which that production is carried on – or between the new needs generated in the course of their social Praxis and the old needs which give rise to and yet are in opposition to the new needs. From these antagonisms results the fragmentization of experience, the absence of unified control of the collective lot, the worship of the abstractions which express the needs of yesterday, the contrast between an everyday self and an ideal holiday self – all of which constitutes the cultus and theology of religion. Religion, according to Marx, is to be construed from the real condition of man’s empirical life and not from his essence. And if these conditions are such that they generate certain kinds of emotional conflicts and theoretical illusions, then these illusions and conflicts must be removed by removing that which gives rise to them.

Here again it must be pointed out that Marx is making predictions and not establishing anything by definition. It remains to be seen whether the emotional conflicts and theoretical illusions associated with religion will disappear with the transformation of the economic order which, according to Marx’s hypothesis, is responsible only for the ways in which these conflicts and illusions are expressed but for their very existence.

The same is true as far as the existence of the state in a classless society is concerned. Only a religious attitude and not a scientific philosophy can assure us that the state is destined to “whither away”. So it may, in name! But the real question is whether any new social conflicts will arise, necessitating the existence of separate bodies of armed men standing over against the community as a whole to enforce special interests. This cannot be settled by definition.

If Feuerbach claimed to have discovered the secret of theology in anthropology, Marx sought to transform anthropology into realistic sociology. Feuerbach had shown the religious world to be illusory; Marx asks however: “How does it come about that these illusions arise?” (Abt. I, Bd. 5, p. 215.) Neither Marx nor any of his orthodox followers have worked out detailed analyses of the great religions of the past from the standpoint of historical materialism. Some interesting attempts to uncover the social contradictions at the basis of religious constructions have been made by men like E. Bernstein, Max Weber, E. Troelsch and R.H. Tawney, but not strictly along Marxian lines. In this field as in so many others, a casual phrase of Marx’s, penned in 1843 when he was till a Feuerbachian, has been substituted for his considered philosophy. Marx’s sentence, “Religion is the opium of the people” has itself acted like opium upon the minds of his followers who have repeated it as if it constituted all that can be said on the subject. If religion were the opium of the people, the necessary precondition of all criticism would be the awakening of the people from their drugged slumbers. This is precisely the position which Marx criticized when he argued against B. Bauer, Stirner, Feuerbach and others that the political and social movement of the working class must not be explicitly or programmatically anti-religious. Such a movement, according to Marx must in the first instance be directed against the milieu whose social antagonisms are eased through the cultural opium dispensed by those classes which control the means of production, education and communication.

Thesis V.:

“Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, appeals to sensory thinking [Anschauung]; but he does not conceive sensibility as practical, human-sensory, activity.”

This links up with the point made in Thesis I. That Marx regards it as important is indicated by the fact that he returns to it in several different ways in Die deutsche Ideologie, where Feuerbach is criticized for not grasping the sense object (sinnliche Gegenstand) as a sensory activity (sinnliche Tätigkeit). Here again, Marx’s historical sense asserts itself against formalism in a twofold way. To the idealistic identification of reality with thought, Feuerbach had countered with the identification of reality with sensibility or sensation. Feuerbach’s description of the nature of sensation was no more empirical than the idealistic description of the nature of thought. The latter overlooked the historical materials which were the prior condition of effective thinking, the former overlooked the elements of selective activity determining the concrete character of sensation. For Marx sensations were not merely experienced effects of things acting upon the body, they were effects of an interaction between an active body and the things surrrounding it. The sensations which appear to be passively experienced to a large degree depend for their frequency, their specific context, and even their relative intensity upon where the body looks and listens – in short upon where the body attends as well as upon what it attends. In fact this is the differential characteristic between living and non-living things, preeminently present in man because of his more highly developed nervous system and intelligence.

In Die deutsche Ideologie Marx goes even further and shows that sensation has not only a biologically selective dimension but a social dimension. Given the “same” environment, defined as the co-presence of a number of different things or actions in a fixed physical area, it is well known that subjects drawn from different cultures will “see” different things and interpret them differently. Tradition, education, language, and all the other aspects of culture intertwined with the basic mode of production influence what seem to be purely biological reactions. This in fact differentiates the biological reactions of man from those of other living beings. Man’s hunger, for example, is a natural phenomenon but the ways in which he gratifies his hunger and the character of what he regards as food are social facts. Through social organization man is continually modifying his primary natural environment, reducing its role to that of a pure limiting condition. Through social organization, particularly industry, Marx asserts, the given can sometimes be explained as well as the ways in which the given is taken. If you want certainty, Feuerbach had preached in one of the phases of his philosophy, open your eyes and grasp the given as an immediate, natural datum, e.g., that cherry tree over there. What met one’s eyes, Marx retorted, was likely to be not a god-given eternal fact of nature but a socially mediated object.

“He [Feuerbach] does not see that the sensory world which surrounds him is not something immediately given from eternity, something always the same, but the product of industry and the social situation, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole series of generations, each one standing on the shoulders of those preceding it, developing previous industry and forms of social intercourse, and changing their social order in accordance with changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensory certainty’ are given through social development, industry and commercial relations. The cherry tree like almost all fruit trees was transplanted to our zone, as is well known, through commerce; it was only by virtue of this action of a determinate society at a determinate time that it was gives to ‘the sensory certainty’ of Feuerbach.” (Gesamtausgabe, Abt. I, Bd. 5, p. 33.)

Marx adds immediately that this historical approach converts every “profound” philosophical question into a simple question of empirical fact. The question of the possibility of this or that piece of knowledge, of the reliability of our perceptions, of things as they are and as they appear to be are all to be answered in terms of biology, psychology or history. A valid implication of Marx’s position would be that psychology is either the study of animal behavior or social behavior. In so far as human reactions are isolated from a social context and correlated with various external stimuli we are analyzing animal behavior – we are in the realm of physiological psychology.

Thesis VI.:

“Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human. But the essence of man is not an abstraction residing in each single individual. In its reality it is the whole of social relationships.

“Feuerbach, who does not enter upon the criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:

“1) to abstract from the historical process and to fixate the religious feeling as something self-contained, and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.

“2) to conceive the essence of man only as ‘the species’, as an inner, inarticulate, natural tie, binding many individuals together.”

Thesis VII.:

“Feuerbach does not therefore see that the ‘religious feeling’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyzes belongs in reality to a specific form of society.”

The above glosses develop the argument made in Thesis IV. They deny that religion and the religious experience are primary natural facts about man. Until recently this was the assumption made by most armchair theorists of the origin of religion. Religion for one is an expression of a direct natural fear, socially unmediated, of unseen powers and uncontrollable forces. For others, it can attempt to placate spiritual beings whose presence is suggested by phenomena of dreams and psychic illusion. For Schleiemacher, it is the feeling of absolute dependence upon the cosmic ineffable whole.

For Feuerbach it is the projection of an experienced need. All of these theories imply that man is a religious creature in the same sense as he is a food, clothing and shelter-seeking creature. They all assert that at the very least a common denominator can be found in all religious theory and practice which expresses its essential characteristic, and which remains invariant throughout its varying historic forms. Now for the purposes of identification, Marx would never dream of denying that religious behavior must exhibit certain properties enabling investigation to differentiate it from other forms of behavior. But he does not look for these properties in the characters of individual religious belief or action. Believing that religion arises as a set of doctrines and practises whenever society has reached a certain stage in the division of labor, he tries to locate its specific character in the social functions which it fulfills. The defining trait of religion, as developed by Feuerbach and other philosophers of religion, was a generalization of one historical expression of “religious feeling”. It was true that many contemporaries of Feuerbach would recognize his psychological analysis as an accurate account of their religious experience. But from Marx’s point of view, a more adequate explanation of their religious experience would be found by analyzing the concrete social situation out of which this religious experience developed. It could hardly be claimed that the religious experience of a 19th century citizen of France or Germany was the same as the religious experience of a Greek or Roman citizen. So great is the pervasive character of the totality of social relations which give “the tone” to a culture, that Marx felt justified in claiming that there is a greater difference! between ancient religion and ancient politics, art, or any other phase of ancient culture.

Strictly speaking, for Marx there is no history of religion as such but only a history of the cutures of which religions are fragmentary aspects. To erect a definition of religion on the basis of one of its historic expressions, is to assume that there is a religious sentiment as such with which man is naturally endowed and which can be studied in its pure form once its accidental social and historical expressions are sloughed off.

The VIth thesis restates in a few terse sentences the criticism which Marx passed upon Stirner. The “individual”, whose psyche Feuerbach probed so deeply, is a rather late and complex product of society. No social phenomena, therefore, can be explained in terms of any of the traits imputed to individuals as creatures of nature. Feuerbach realized the impossibility of ever deriving consciousness of the existence of oneself from individual behavior. There is no Ich which is not the necessary complement of Du. But the social bond between the self and others was conceived on the plane of grammar and common emotion – both of which, according to Marx, already presupposed a common social world of production. Where Feuerbach strives to make the social bond between men concrete, he falls back upon the biological facts of interdependence and reproduction. For Marx the social bond between human beings – a bond which makes their differences as well as their agreements intelligible – is the totality of social relations. If one must speak of the “essence of man”, one must find it in man’s civilization – material and ideal – and not in biology.

Thesis VIII.:

“Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practise and in the understanding of this practise.”

Here we have a heuristic principle of the first importance. It guided Marx in all of his own work. It served as the acid test of the meaning of the theories he opposed. It denies both the existence of insoluble problems and of mystical solution to problems.

The disparity between what human beings do and the explanations they offer to themselves and others of what they do, is a striking phenomenon in all social life. Even the history of science appears, from one point of view, to be a continuous effort to substitute more exact descriptions of what man sees and does, for less exact descriptions. Several reasons may be offered for this lag in our understanding. First of all, the body acts in some decisive way long before thought can strike a trial-balance of all factors involved. Secondly, “new” discoveries are made and “new” techniques developed while the “old” principles still exercise their sway. And since for anything to be intelligible, it must at least impart a sense of “the familiar”, the traditional principles are retained for explanatory purposes, at the cost of slighting the distinctively novel features of experience. In due course, the novel becomes familiar and principles are reformulated, but by that time the situation demands still further clarification and refinement of expression. Thirdly, the social context of theories and practises is lost sight of, and ideas are treated as if they were independent entities, irrelevant to the needs and interests of their proponents. The problems of why ideas and theories arise when they do, why they prevail, and why they develop a life so different from that planned for them by their authors – become mysteries or, more accurately, give rise to mystical solutions.

Marx was primarily interested in the effect which the neglect of social context had upon obscuring the relation between theory and practise. This social context was understood in its broadest terms and included not only the immediate social needs which influenced the direction and development of scientific research but the social habits of thought and action involved in communication. According to Marx, the basic criteria of intelligibility presupposed a common activity in a common world. Somewhere along the line in every theory, a determinate form of behavior exemplified its meaning. The alleged independence of the socalled non-existential sciences is due to a failure to relate their fundamental concepts to the concrete situations and concrete activities out of which they grow and to which they must in some form or another be applied. Were Marx alive today he would trace the flights to mysticism induced by recent work in modern physics to the fundamental methodological error of directly comparing the refined hypothetical results of theory with the crude data of evperience. In the light of his genial insight, he would urge scientists to examine their conclusions in terms of the operations and practises necessary to achieve them, and to set forth the meaning of their theories as prescriptive guides to specific action.


“The highest point which can be reached by contemplative materialism, i.e., materialism which cannot grasp the fact that sensibility is a practical activity, is the point of view of single individuals in ‘civic society’.”


“The standpoint of the old materialism is ‘civic society’; the standpoint of the new materialism is human society or socialized humanity.”

The key to the meaning of these theses lies in the phrase “civic society” (bürgerliche Gesellschaft), the title of the second section of the third part of Hegel’s Rechtsphilosophie. The mistranslation of the phrase as “bourgeois” or “capitalist” society by some “Marxists” makes nonsense of the passage, for materialism is older than capitalism and is not always the official philosophy of bourgeois society. Some who have recognized the reference to Hegel have assumed that Hegel is being charged with a kind of contemplative materialism, forgetting that the culmination of the Hegelian social philosophy is the doctrine of the State in which the abstract rights, the individualism, the conflicts and compromises of sovereignty between different social groups, all flowing from the nature of civic society, are transcended. It is the Hegelian philosophy and not contemplative materialism which represents for Marx the highest philosophical expression of capitalism. It is significant that the last ideological defence of developed capitalism is everywhere a variation of Hegel’s social and political philosophy, particulary his theory of die Korporation which serves as the transition in the Rechtsphilosophie to the nature of the state.

It is clear then that the meaning of Marx in these theses does not lie on the surface. We must ask what Hegel meant by “civic society”, why Marx associates the theory and practise of civic society with contemplative materialism and why the new materialism is declared to be the philosophy of a truly human society.

Civic society in Hegel is the complex of organized social ties which knot individuals together by the cords of self-interest. The individual in such a society is himself a system (Ganzes) of needs or wants, some of which are an expression of natural necessity, some a result of arbitrary choice. He regards himself, or the fulfillment of his needs, as his sole end, and all other individuals as necessary means to his self-expression. His social and political philosophy is individualism, which assumes that everyone else is by nature self-seeking and free. Whatever social and governmental constraints exist are external to the minds and feelings of those who abide by them. They are compromises which are made necessary by the conflict of activities in the collective pursuit of individual gratifications.

According to Marx traditional materialism could only conceive of human consciousness as a passive form of sensation. Sensation was a property of human bodies which arose whenever they were subjected to the impacts of other things and bodies. Mind together with all intellectual processes, like memory and generalization, is sensation modified and organized in such a way as to increase or diminish the basic feelings of pleasure and pain. The natural tendency of all bodies despite their oral behavior is to preserve themselves, and more concretely, to pursue their own self-interest. This was supposed to be a deduction justified, according to some materialists, by the laws of mechanics. The gratification of self-interest is the source of all duty to one’s self and to one’s fellow-man.

The completest expression of the materialistic “self-interest” theory of human activity in the eyes of Marx was the philosophy of Bentham. In Die deutsche Ideologie Bentham’s views are submitted to close analysis and the basic assumptions of utilitarianism are rejected. “Interest” as conceived by Bentham – “whose nose”, says Marx, “must first have an interest before it makes up its mind to smell” (Gesamtausgabe, Abt. I., Bd. 5, p. 192) – is declared to be a needless third term introduced between human beings and the manner in which they live their life. The reason, however, why all natural impulses are first related to some imaginary interest is that a peculiar set of social relationships has made it impossible to gratify natural desires directly or to lose oneself into activities for their own sake. The existence of a social and economic order in which production is dependent upon a market, upon “free” laborers, upon the expectation of profit, affects every human relationship within it. Everything is vain in such a culture except the “useful”. But to have utility means to be exploitable. The rule of “live and let live” makes way for the maxim “exploit or be exploited.” The objective expression of this utility is money in which is represented the value of all things, human beings and social relations. (Ibid., p. 388.)

Marx admits the progressive role which the theory of utilitarianism played in helping to clear the ground of feudal anachronisms. In stressing the importance of the mutual exploitation of one another through competitive effort, a common attack was made by the bourgeoisie on the institutional exploitations of feudalism – political, patriarchal and religious – which prevented free scope for the development of commercial and competitive talents. At no time however did the utilitarians apply their criteria of moral validity to the institutions of capitalism and their consequences. Criticism was directed only against those vestiges of an earlier social period which restricted the field of “personal exploitation”. Whereas in France the theory of utilitarianism assumed “a moral form” in England its content rapidly became more and more economic. The special forms which the division of labor took were justified as the expressions of and contributions to social utility. Variations in market exchanges resulting from competition were equated to each other by the use of a least common denominator of relative utilities whose values established themselves only post hoc, i. e., after the exchanges were made. The result was, said Marx, that

“its economic content gradually transformed the theory of utility into a pure apologia of the existing order, into a proof that under given conditions the present relations of human beings to each other represent the best and most useful relations possible. All subsequent modern economic theory carries the same character” (Ibid., Abt. I, Bd. 5, p. 392).

The standpoint of the old materialism is the standpoint of civic society because it is “atomic”. It assumes that each individual organism is a god-given independent whole with private pains, pleasures and interests. Existing social arrangements are explained as contractual obligations to which each individual commits himself out of his own interest. The standpoint of the new materialism is the standpoint of the human society because in emphasizing the historical and cultural determinants of private experience it claims that what any man is must be explained, so to speak, in terms of what all men are. But what all men are must be inferred from what they do, from the institutional conditions under which they do it, and the historical forces which have moulded and are reshaping these conditions. This is another way of establishing the truth that the nature of man is therefore not a biological fact but a social one. The organizing relations and traditions of society are not something put on and off by individuals; they enter deeply into what appears at first glance as immediate reactions of the single organism. The theorists of an atomistic, civic society were aware that the consequences of the private pursuit of private interest rarely squared with the expectations of pain and pleasure entertained by the overwhelming mass of citizens. They either explained the discrepancy as the result in each case of false calculation or they sought refuge in a mystical conception of a pre-established harmony operating in invisible ways to bring about an undefined social welfare. Marx’s conception of man pointed to the necessity of a direct collective control of all social institutions which influenced man. Such a control presupposes a theory of social interest which in a human society must give meaning and content to private interest. “Socialized humanity” on Marx’s view does not destroy individuality; it modifies its form, enriches its content and makes it a value accessible to all. In a similar way, Marx expected all values whose expressions are frustrated by class interests in a class society to take on new forms and content.


“Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently: the point is, however, to change it.”

This oft-quoted remark evidently continues a line of criticism begun in Die deutsche Ideologie. Marx had pointed out that the Young Hegelians despite their “world-shattering phrases” were doing nothing more than rebaptizing the world as they found it with a new set of distinctions. Feuerbach, too, was not chary of using radical phraseology. But since he, like the others, sought the key to social change in the alteration of a personal attitude, in a generalization of the feeling of love already implicit in much of common-day behavior, Marx refused to take him at his revolutionary word. For all his talk about man, humanity and communism, Feuerbach never investigated what the social conditions of men were, to what extent the qualities of humanity which he regarded as “essential to the species” were historical, and what program of action his communism laid upon him. In Feuerbach’s eyes, as we have already seen, the concrete differences between a group of healthy men and a mass of “scrofulous, overworked men fainting with hunger” are less important than the common characteristics which they share as members of an ideally defined human species. Since his abstract materialism does not come to grips with the specific causes which produce differentiations in the human species, Marx argues that Feuerbach cannot do justice to the historical elements in culture. The latter are precisely the factors which must serve as points of leverage in social change. Where Feuerbach does pay fleeting attention to historical situations, particularly in religion, he tries to find the key to them in presumably invariant patterns of human feeling and behavior.

In reading Feuerbach one cannot help sensing the illusionism which pervades his writings. He writes as if the demonstration of a truth were itself a proof that the truth would prevail, as if to have exposed an error were tantamount to passing a sentence of doom upon it. Stressing feeling as he does, he nevetheless pays little attention to the social sources of feeling. Despite his criticism of the superficial rationalism which explains all conduct in terms of consciously entertained ideas, he himself relapses into that very position when he expects institutional changes to be effected by his analysis. At times he strikes a different note as when he reflects upon the outcome of the German revolution of 1848. But he always returns to his rationalistic faith. His pathetic trust that the future of atheism belongs to America where the absence of feudal traditions makes human beings more accessible to argument, is a case in point. His friend Kapp who had been in America and had some first-hand experience with American piety hastened to disillusion him but Feuerbach clung to his comforting belief to the end of his days. (Cf., L. Feuerbach, Briefwechsel und Nachlass, Bd. 2, p. 7.)

A more conspicuous illustration of Feuerbach’s illusionism is his characterization of himself as a communist. His grounds for such bold language, which later conributed to bringing down on him a visitation from the police and a thorough house-searching, were philological rather than political. In a review of Max Stirner’s book which makes merry over Feuerbach’s religion of humanity and the inconsistencies between his method and conclusions, Feuerbach attempts to fix the character of his philosophy in the following words:

“Feuerbach is neither materialist, idealist or a believer in the philosophy of identity. Well, then, what is he? He is in thought as in deed, in spirit as in flesh, in essence as in feeling – man; or rather, since for him the essence of man is given only in society, communal man, communist”. (S.W. I, Bd. I, 342)

Marx seized upon this passage as epitomizing the confusion and limitation of Feuerbach’s thought. A term whose meaning in use refers to allegiance to a specific political organization is converted into a purely abstract category. The abstract category expresses in an abstract way the commonplace that human beings find each other necessary to one another’s existence. Nothing is said about the specific forms this necessary relation to each other can take and the relative justification, at definite historical periods, of one form rather than others. Finally, the whole purport of Feuerbach’s description is to bring to consciousness an existing fact, whereas “the real communist aims at the revolutionizing of the existing order” (Gesamtausgabe, Abt. I, Bd. 5, p. 31). The point of Marx’s impatience with Feuerbach’s failure to concretize his descriptions and to distinguish between the historical and natural elements in his analysis becomes clearer. If the existing facts about the relations of men to each other are natural, or in Feuerbach’s language, are essential to the nature of man, then it is nonsense to talk about revolutionizing them.

Marx admits that Feuerbach has gone as far as a pure theoretician or philosopher, in the traditional sense, can go without ceasing to be a theoretician or philosopher. For practice, on every conception of philosophy except Marx’s own, is a foreign element in philosophy. It involves decision, conflict, an element of partisanship in behalf of one among a number of possible alternatives. The kind of philosophy Marx called for and which his own activity illustrated, involved not merely risking an idea but risking one’s whole person in carrying it out. Without an attempt at carrying out ideas, philosophy becomes a mere playing with possibilities unrelated to the quest for truth and the furtherance of the good life which have always been its professed objectives. In a dim way Feuerbach, too, had realized this. But his false conception of the nature of practice led him to confine the philosophical activity to thinking about ideas. Confronting the simple, and even on his own view, the artificial dichotomy between passionless thought and thoughtless passion or activity, he identifies philosophy with passionless thought, i.e., thought unrelated to practise. His whole way of phrasing the alternative reveals not only patent inconsistencies with his other doctrines but a failure of nerve in realizing his own call for the reconstruction of philosophy. He writes of the relation between reason and passion in history as follows:

“Reason writes history but passion makes it. Everything new therefore is an injustice against the old ... One can think without doing an injustice to anyone, without inflicting pain upon any one, for thoughts do not go further than one’s own head. But one cannot act without setting one’s whole body into motion, without running up against obstacles on all sides, without wounding even against one’s will.” (S.W. I, Bd. 2, p. 408)

Marx rejects the disjunction as being neither exhaustive nor exclusive. It is true that there is no action without a violation of some right or interest. It is not true that such action need be blind, uninformed by theory or reason. It is true that one can think without acting directly but it is not true that no injustice is thereby done. For existing injustices are tolerated and remain unaltered. Philosophical activity may be conceived as action in behalf of values and interests which have been criticized by knowledge and reason. The very fact that philosophy is an activity in a world of space, time and incompatible interests, makes it clear that its goals cannot be absolute truth or absolute justice. But the fact that action is thoughtful makes it possible to achieve beliefs which are truer; the fact that thought leads to action makes it possible to achieve a world which is more just.

This, I believe, is the sense of Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach.


1. Consider such a typical passage as: “A consistently carried out naturalism or humanism distinguishes itself from idealism as well as materialism and at the same time unifies what is true in both. We can also see that only naturalism is capable of grasping the acts of world history.” (Gesamtausgabe, Abt. I, Bd. 3, p. 160.)

2. Letter to Engels, Jan. 11, 1868. (Gesamtausgabe, Abt. III, Bd. 4, p. 10.)

3. “The real content of all epoch-making systems are the needs of the time in which they arise. At the basis of each system there lies the whole previous development of a nation and the historical forms of class relationships with their political, moral, philosophical and other consequences.” (Gesamtausgabe, Abt. I, Bd. 5, p. 445.)

4. Although Marx was free of anti-Semitic prejudice, he unfortunately was not over sensitive to using the term “Jew”, often with unsavory adjectives, as an epithet of abuse. It is a vicious form of idolatry to defend his practice as L. Rudas seems to do by indirection in his preface to the recent English translation of Engels’ Feuerbach (Marxist Library, Vol.XV, International Publishers, 1935, p. 12).

5. Particularly his first draft of an introduction to his Critique of Political Economy, reprinted as an appendix to the English translation. This manuscript is of the first importance for the consideration of Marx’s methodology.

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