Karl Marx and Human Self-creation, Cyril Smith (2002)

6. Marx

When, in 1837, Karl Marx (1818-1883) transferred to Berlin University, it was with the intention of continuing his study of law. But, despite his best intentions, he was inexorably drawn into the study of philosophy in general and the Hegelian philosophical system in particular. A decade earlier, this would have meant adhering to the unified outlook which had come to dominate thought in Prussia. But by the late 1830s, that outlook was in a state of decomposition. So the young Marx was inevitably embroiled in the vehement, noisy and highly alcoholic arguments among the ‘Young Hegelians’, focussed largely on what they saw as the radical political and religious implications of Hegel’s work.

Many of these students affected an abstract ‘atheism. They wanted to show that Hegel also was really an atheist, whose open religious ideas were little more than a pretence, just accommodation to the establishment. Marx had little patience with such attitudes. As he explained in a letter to Arnold Ruge (November 30, 1842):

I desired that there be less trifling with the label ‘atheism’, (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogy man), and that instead the content of philosophy should be brought to the people. (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 1, p 395.)

Marx’s chief interest at that time was the history of Greek philosophy, particularly the period after Aristotle. He saw the appearance of schools like Stoicism, Scepticism and Epicureanism as analogous to the situation in German philosophy after Hegel. He took as the topic for his Doctoral Dissertation the relation between the philosophies of nature of the atomists Democritus and Epicurus. Hegel had regarded the work of Epicurus as containing little new, but Marx respectfully disagrees. While the atoms of Democritus fell in straight lines in the void, those of Epicurus swerved from the rectilinear. In this ‘declination’, thinks Marx, Epicurus and his Roman disciple Lucretius were approaching an understanding of human freedom. ‘Repulsion is the first form of self-consciousness.'

In his Notebooks to prepare for the Dissertation, Marx writes:

The modern rational outlook on nature must first raise itself to the point from which the ancient Ionian philosophy, in principle at least, begins – the point of seeing the Divine, the Idea, embodied in nature. (ibid. pp 423-4.)

Marx is seeking ways of understanding nature which will grasp its unity with human life. He thinks that Epicurus, for all his limitations, gets closer to this than Democritus, and that Hegel had overlooked this advance. This leads him to see more clearly the significance of philosophy and its attitude to the world in his own time. Philosophy and the world condition each other. Hegel’s philosophy had ‘sealed itself off to form a consummate, total world’. Meanwhile,

The determination of this totality is conditioned by the general development of this philosophy, just as the development of this philosophy is the condition of the form in which philosophy turns into a practical relationship towards reality. ... The world confronting a philosophy total in itself is thus a world torn apart. (ibid. p 491.)

So, from an incidental disagreement with Hegel over an episode in the history of ancient Greek philosophy, the twenty-one-year-old Marx arrives at the necessity for the practical activity of philosophy in healing the divisions in a world ‘torn apart’. Dr. Marx then realises that he will never find an academic job, becomes the editor of a newspaper, gets into a running battle with the Prussian Censorship over the freedom of the press, and finds himself unemployed – and married – at the age of twenty-five. In this situation, (in the house of his mother-in-law), he begins to write a detailed critique of one part of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the section on the State.

But he is able to embark on this work, in 1843, only because he has been convinced by Feuerbach’s criticisms of Hegel. Although his enthusiasm for Feuerbach only lasts a couple of years, it opens up a new attitude to Hegel, increasing the confidence with which he declares his independence from his ‘great teacher’. As he recalls sixteen years later, in the famous 1859 Preface to his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy:

The first work which I undertook to dispel the doubts assailing me was a critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law. ... My enquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of the so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term ‘civil society'; that the anatomy of this society, however, is to be sought in political economy.

So from the critique of religion, which Marx found in Feuerbach, Marx moves to the critique of the State and thence to the critique of political economy. This progression, from God to State to economy, is a movement deeper into the nature of humanity and its mystification, especially the mystification of human productive activity.

It is important to bear in mind the meaning which Marx gives to the word ‘critique’ by this point in his development. I used to place Marx’s critiques of political economy and of socialist Utopia on the same level as the critique of Hegelian dialectic, but I now want to place this third critical operation on a separate plane, for it includes and underlies each of the other two. Occurring in the titles of almost all his works, critique does not mean rejection of – and certainly not mere disagreement with – secondary features. Critique implies demystification, not by rejecting mystery, but by tracing its origins to the reality of social life.

Marx seeks to probe the connections of each object to the essence of humanity. His critique uncovers the inhuman ways that humans deny their humanity inside the very forms of life which they themselves have made. Shut inside these forms, they struggle to think about themselves, both truly and falsely. In the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Marx charges Hegel with mystification on several occasions, even of ‘logical pantheistic mysticism’ (p 7). But as he moves steadily through Hegel’s sometimes apologetic analysis of the State, he shows how Hegel has succeeded in reflecting mysterious, hidden aspects of political life.

This is most clearly expressed in the only part of this Critique which Marx published, the Introduction. In its most famous – and most misquoted – passage, Marx clarifies what he means by ‘critique’.

The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is the self- consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of men, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopedic point d'honeur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence, because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma. Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Ibid. Vol. 3, p 175.)

Marx does not throw away religion, or denounce it, or deny its mystery: his task is to find out why religion exists, to trace the roots of mystery in humanity’s inhuman way of life. So, from religion, the Introduction proceeds to examine with great savagery the contemporary position of Germany.

If the speculative philosophy of law, that abstract extravagant thinking on the modern state, the reality remains a thing of the beyond, if only beyond the Rhine, was possible only in Germany, inversely the German thought-image of the modern state which disregards real man was possible only because and insofar as the modern state itself disregards real man or satisfies the whole of man only in imagination. (p 181)

Now, for the first time, Marx can speak about the proletariat as the most important emancipatory force, ‘a class with radical chains’. (p 186). ‘As philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapons in philosophy.’ (p 187)

Spurred on by Engels’ brilliant 1843 essay Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Marx now embarks on his life’s work. Somehow, he still imagines himself a follower of Feuerbach, and remains so for almost a year longer. But already in reality he has gone far beyond that much cruder form of ‘critique’. From the mystery of religion, via the mystery of the state, Marx now confronts the central mystery of modernity, what he would later call the secret, ‘fetish’ character of commodities and commodity-relationships which permeates and dominates all our lives.

Some time in May, 1844, now an exile in Paris, Marx reads and comments on a French translation of James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy. Seeing Mill’s banal characterisation of money as ‘the medium of exchange’, Marx brings everything he has learned to bear on this disciple of Ricardo.

The human social act by which man’s products mutually complement one another, is estranged from man and becomes the attribute of money, a material thing outside man. Since man alienates this mediating activity itself, he is active here only as a man who has lost himself and is dehumanised. ... His slavery therefore reaches its peak. It is clear that this mediator becomes a real God. (p 212)

We might say that this analogy between God and money occupies Marx for the rest of his life.

Although Marx does not appear the see it at the time, he has already gone far beyond Feuerbach. To illuminate this, let us look sketch briefly at the respective receptions of Anselm’s so-called ‘ontological proof’ of God’s existence by Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx. Tidied up by Descartes, this says that, since God is the most perfect being we can conceive, and since perfection must surely include existence... . Kant famously and unceremoniously knocked this on the head: if I think I have 100 talers in my pocket, that is not the same as actually having them! Hegel is not impressed with this wisecrack. ‘When we speak of “God”, we are referring to an object of quite a different kind than one hundred talers’. ‘The true cognition of God begins with our knowing that things in their immediate being have no truth.’ Feuerbach (Principles..., para 25), however, wants to re-establish Kant’s argument against Hegel’s mockery.

But Marx takes this argument to an entirely different plane. First, with Hegel, he points to the parallel between God and money as ‘alien mediators’ between individuals. But then he leaps from this critique of what appears to be the most mundane of topics, money – ‘Everybody knows what money is’, declares the learned professor of economics – to nothing less than the nature of humanity.

Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting the nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth. (p 217)

Now, Marx can begin to ask what it would be like to live in a truly human world, in which we ‘carried out production as human beings’. Without the ‘alien mediators’, private property, money and state, ‘my work would be a free manifestation of life.’ (p 228) Marx has discovered his own conception of communism.

The content of these few scribbled pages is so rich that its elaboration occupies Marx for the rest of his life, with many ideas left untouched. Soon he is at work on those pages, given by their Moscow Editors the most misleading title: Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts. (To the original edition in 1936, these bureaucrats added an even more baffling title about ‘the foundations of historical materialism’. Through an investigation of some economists, Marx gets to the heart of the nature of labour in its alienated form, in the production of commodities for sale, and thus to the nature of human creative activity as such and of human sociality.

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. ... Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. ... An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. ... In degrading spontaneous, free activity to a means, estranged labour makes man’s species-life a means to his physical existence. ... Estranged labour turns thus man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means for his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect. (pp 276-7)

So, through his analysis of alienated, estranged labour, Marx is able to discover the way in which to be a human individual means participation in three linked processes: making humanity, making the human social-historical and even making the natural world. Only this is hidden and imprisoned within estrangement by this very act of making. This is how Marx can deal with religious argumentation:

But since for the socialist man the entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labour, nothing but the emergence of nature for man, so he has the visible, irrefutable proof of his birth through himself, of his genesis. Since the real existence of man and nature has beome evident in practice, through sense experience, because man has thus become evident for man as the being of nature, the question about an alien being, about a being above nature and man – a question which implies the admission of the unreality of nature and of man – has become impossible in practice. Atheism, as the denial of this unreality, has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation. (pp 305-6.)

The last of these Paris Manuscripts, ‘Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole’, begins with some of Marx’s most fulsome praise of Feuerbach. And yet the ideas Marx begins to develop here leave Feuerbach far behind. Marx enters into a detailed critical discussion of the last chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology, ‘Absolute Knowing’. Philosophy transcends ‘Revealed Religion’, which, Hegel says, is defective only in that it has not made ‘its actual self-consciousness the object of its consciousness’. Having learned from Feuerbach that Hegel makes the human being ‘the same as self-consciousness’, Marx is able to transform Hegel’s upside-down picture into an understanding of man as a ‘human natural being’, not an isolated individual, but a social being.

As everything natural has to come into being, man too has his act of origin – history – which, however, is for him a known history, and hence as an act of origin, is a conscious self-transcending act of origin.

Within his inverted philosophical picture,

Hegel conceives labour as man’s act of self-genesis – conceives man’s relation to himself as an alien being and the manifestation of himself as an alien being to be the emergence of species-consciousness and species-life. (p 333)

So instead of Aristotle’s self-thinking Idea, or Hegel’s self-creating Spirit, Marx places the self-developing creative powers of the total social human being, what he sometimes called ‘productive forces’. The misunderstanding of Marx by ‘Marxism’ is epitomised in its insistent identification of this phrase with machinery, occasionally adding ‘and labour-power’.

Towards the end of 1844, Marx worked with Engels on a book, the Holy Family, which attacked the positions of some of the ‘Left-Hegelians’, especially Bruno Bauer. It clarifies a number of ideas, in particular the character of Marx’s communism and his conception of the proletariat.

Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has found not only theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need – the practical expression of necessity – is driven to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life which are summed up in its own situation. ... It is not a question of this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. (Ibid. Vol. 4, p 37)

‘Marxists’, including for example Georgi Lukacs, took this to imply that those privileged to know about this historical necessity, while the ordinary proletarians do not, will be obliged to act on their behalf. As we have seen, this is not what Marx was saying at all.

Marx’s Break with Feuerbach

By the beginning of 1845, Marx could no longer avoid the conclusion that his critique of Hegel was quite different from Feuerbach’s. As part of his preparation for the joint work with Engels called The German Ideology, the first part of which is entitled ‘Feuerbach’, Marx, now expelled from Paris to Brussels, scribbled the famous eleven points known as the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’. These were discovered by Engels and published in an edited version in his Ludwig Feuerbach in 1888. I want to briefly analyse some of the ideas contained in Marx’s original form of this manuscript.

The last of the Theses are among the best-known of Marx’s aphorisms:

Thesis 11. Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

It is engraved on the statue which surmounts his tomb in Highgate Cemetery. (The word ‘but’ or ‘however’ [aber] which often appears between its two phrases is an editorial insertion by Engels and should be disregarded.)

The meaning of this neat pairing should not be taken for granted. Engels’ addition has, only too often, suggested that Marx wants us to change the world instead of interpreting it. The question is: how are we to change the world? By what means and according to what criteria? Interpretation and change must be connected. But how? Somehow, they must both take place inside ‘the world’.

One remark might be worth making at the start: in every one of Theses 1-10 – Marx separates Thesis 11 from the rest – he only attacks one particular philosophical ‘interpretation': materialism. The old story about ‘the materialist Marx’ is just one of the ways that people have been misdirected before they even begin to read what he wrote.

Thesis 3 is a good example.

Thesis 3. The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

This clear rejection of anything like Utopianism was often praised by ‘Marxists’, who failed to notice that it was aimed precisely at them! They (we!) thought that ‘revolutionising practice’ referred to their own limited forms of ‘political work’. It is important to see how, instead, it is rooted firmly in Marx’s basic conception of self-emancipation. He never had any time for transformation brought about by people at the top, well-meaning chaps who could be trusted to look after the interests of the little people. But for Marx, ‘human activity’ means ‘self-change’ [Selbstveränderung]. They are synonyms. An activity which is not self-changing is not human. By the way, this crucial word, ‘self-change’, is actually missing from Engels’ edited version, the only one we had until much later. (In English, not until 1938.) It implies the mutual transformation of an active subject, which does the interpreting and changing and an object which is interpreted and changed.

Theses 4, 6 and 7 all deal with religion and Feuerbach’s attempt to understand it.

Thesis 4. Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement [Selbstentfremdung], of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular [weltliche] one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated [vernichtet] theoretically and practically.

This is an elaboration of Marx’s earlier hostility to ‘abstract atheism’, which leaves untouched the real problems expressed by religious belief. The Thesis must also be taken as an illumination of ‘educating the educators’ in Thesis 3.

Thesis 6. Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man [menschliche Wesen = ‘human nature']. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence is hence obliged:

1. To abstract from the historical process and to define the religious sentiment regarded by itself, and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.

2. The essence therefore can by him only be regarded as ‘species’, as an inner ‘dumb’ generality which unites many individuals only in a natural way.

What unites human individuals is not just their biological – these days we might say ‘genetic’ – similarities, but their entire historical, cultural and social character. Indeed, they only become individuals through this set of relations.

Thesis 7. Feuerbach consequently does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual that he analyses belongs in reality to a particular social form.

Here Marx pits his – and Hegel’s – understanding of the social nature of humanity against the incompleteness of Feuerbach’s break from Enlightenment individualism. We can also see most clearly the close connection between Marx’s conceptions of humanity and of critique.

The word ‘practice’ ('praxis') occurs in nearly all the Theses. It does not just mean ‘activity’, but carries a two-sided reference both to the human relation with nature and to human relations within society.

Thesis 2. The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, ie the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

The odd word ‘Diesseitigkeit’ might carry a bit more weight than is sometimes imagine. It is chosen as the opposite of the much more common ‘Jenseitigkeit’, ‘other-worldliness’ or transcendence.

Thesis 5. Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants sensuous contemplation [Anschauung]; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.

Thesis 8. All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

Marx’s conception of practice, meaning ‘human life-activity or self-change’, is central to his world-outlook. As his discussion of materialism makes clear, he is not concerned with ‘epistemology’, a ‘theory of knowledge’ standing outside his conception of humanity and of productive and self-productive activity. Such a ‘theory’, standing outside its object, is the highest symptom of the alienated way of life of the modern world.

Thesis 9. The highest point reached by contemplative (anschauende) materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and of civil society [bürgerlichen Gesellschaft].

Thesis 10. The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity.

It is ‘civil society’, Hegel’s ‘battlefield of private interest’, which is expressed in the fragmented, contemplative outlook of isolated individuals.

But the sharpest opposition between Marx and ‘Marxism’, ‘dialectical materialism’, ‘historical materialism’, and the rest, is displayed right at the start of Marx’s summary:

Thesis 1. The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the Object [der Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object [Objekts], or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism – but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects [Objekte], differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective [gegenständliche] activity. In The Essence of Christianity [Das Wesen des Christenthums], he therefore regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance [Erscheinungsform]. Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity.

‘Marxism’, including its inventor, Plekhanov and his eminent pupil, VI Lenin, could make neither head nor tail of this Thesis – so they wisely just ignored it. Its praise of idealism and down-grading of materialism just didn’t fit their understanding of Marx, nor did the prominence it gives to subjectivity. But look at the text in the light of our brief view of Marx’s development. Marx criticises materialism as it had grown up in the eighteenth century, with its passive attitude to reality, and lumps Ludwig Feuerbach’s materialism together with it. The defect of this outlook, Marx explains, is that it is able to grasp knowledge only in opposition to both the object of knowledge and the knowing subject. It is incapable of understanding the activity of knowing the world in terms of the rest of human social and individual activity, the simultaneously subjective and objective social process of self-change and self-genesis.

It was German idealism – not just Hegel’s work but that of Fichte and Schelling too – which developed this ‘active side’. We have been discussing the long tradition of heretical religious and magical thought associated with this achievement. As individuals and as a social whole, we are trying to get hold of the world, as ourselves parts of the world. The objects we find in it must be grasped as aspects of our subjective striving, not as mere obstacles for it to overcome. Our subjectivity and our objective drive to change the conditions in which we live are two aspects of the same world. ‘Theory’, when it views things in the world as separate from us and from each other, is the direct opposite. Material productive activity is only part of this ‘active side’. It also includes the transformation of the social relations and conditions within which production takes place. Marx has by now discovered that freedom has to include the creation and continual transformation by humans themselves of the relations between them.

A world in which individuals exist as free subjects must be one where each part of the world belongs with and changes all other parts and itself. Changing the world implies knowing about it in the process of changing it, and change implies self-change and self-consciousness. The goals and the methods of the productive process are altered as a result of the process itself.

In the estranged world, where humans are hostile to each other, to their own life-activity and to themselves, all this is hidden from them. All they can do is to ‘interpret’ it in various ways, powerless to alter the course of its movement. Have we met anything like this attitude before? Certainly! It is the outlook of the Enlightenment. Opposed to it is the outlook of those Hermetics and mystics. In demystifying mysticism without rejecting it, Marx shows how humanity can bring about its own emancipation.

Marx and Revolution

Marx considers himself a communist from 1844 and all his work from then on is a contribution to the communist revolution, which he thinks of as imminent in Europe. But the history of ‘Marxism’, which over much of its history modelled its notion of revolution on the Russian events following October 1917, makes it necessary to reconsider just what this means.

Clearly, Marx does not consider revolution as a sudden overnight transformation, resulting from some kind of coup d'état, however violent it might be. He refers to the situation following a prolonged historical transition, when ‘in the course of development class distinctions have disappeared and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation.’ [Communist Manifesto. Ibid. Volume 6, p 504.] Then, he anticipates, ‘the public power will lose its political character’. The proletariat will have ‘abolished its own supremacy as a class. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’ [Ibid. p 506.] Marx believes that the first step is ‘to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle of democracy’, and identifies the resulting state with ‘the proletariat organised as the ruling class’. [Ibid. p 504.] This is in clear contrast with all previous such social overturns.

All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other mode of appropriation. ... The proletariat cannot raise itself up without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air. [Ibid. p 495.]

The idea that the revolution is basically a transformation of ‘economic conditions’ is quite different from Marx’s conception of the abolition of private property.

Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it. ... In the place of all physical and mental senses there has come therefore the sheer estrangement of all these senses, the sense of having. ... The abolition of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities. [Ibid. Vol. 3, p 300.]

Thus this emancipation, spearheaded by the subjective action of the proletariat, the ‘universal class’, implies far more than can be summed up as ‘the overthrow of capitalism’, as if it just meant fixing up a new economic and political system. It involves a new way of living, in which individual and universal no longer collide. He sees this revolution as marking a major epoch in human history, which displays three main stages.

Relationships of personal dependence (which originally arise quite spontaneously) are the first forms of society . ... Personal independence based upon dependence mediated by things is the second great form, and only in it is a system of general social exchange of matter, a system of universal relations, universal requirements and universal capacities formed. Free individuality, based on the universal development of the individuals and the subordination of their communal, social productivity, which is the social possession, is the third stage. (Grundrisse. Ibid Vol. 28, p 95.)

Capital and Mysticism

Most of Marx’s life was devoted to a single, never-completed work, Capital. Looking again at Volume One, the only part he was able to publish, we are struck by the number of times it speaks of ‘mystery’, ‘secrecy’, the ‘non-material’. Here are just a few examples from the Prefaces and the first chapter:

...and it is the ultimate aim of this work to reveal [enthüllen] the law of motion of modern society. (p. 92, Preface to the First Edition.)

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen. (p. 103, Postface to the Second Edition.)

Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities; in this it is the opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. (p. 138.)

...in the expression of the value of the linen, the coat represents a supra-natural property: their value, which is something purely social.

The table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. ... The mystical character of the commodity does not therefore arise from its use-value. ... The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social character of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves. (pp. 163-5.)

And so on, in many other places.

Marx does not merely point to this secret, mysterious nature of the social forms which underlie the whole of modern social life. He also reveals this secret. The noun Hülle, sometimes translated as ‘integument’, and the verbs enthüllen, to reveal, and verhüllen, to conceal, veil, wrap up, are very important throughout this book. The integument is a film which covers the embryo and is removed at the time of birth. So the secret, the concealment, is not externally-imposed; it grows out of the organism itself, and is actually an essential part of its coming into being. No more than religion is it a ‘mistake’, a wrong way of thinking. Likewise, the revelation which ‘un-conceals’ what was hidden, is not the result of a trick being exposed by a clever ‘theorist’, but is itself an aspect of organic development.

This is strikingly seen when Marx considers briefly another social form, showing us

an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force. (p. 171.)

Contrasted with this is ‘a society of commodity producers’, for which

Christianity, with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, ie in Protestantism, Deism, etc, is the most fitting form of religion. (p. 172.)

Both in discussing religious and social forms, Marx does not see the secret side as something to be got rid of, something which ought not to be, a ‘mistake’. The rational can appear only through the mystery.

The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and between man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, which in turn is the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development. (p.173.)

Marx’s task is to see how modern forms of private property like money, wage-labour and capital, both conceal and reveal the truth about themselves. When, in Chapter 7, he examines the labour-process in general, he sees that ‘in changing nature, men change their own nature’.

But, when the products of labour are exchanged on the market, and when even our capacity to produce, our very life-activity as humans, itself is reduced to a commodity, this process of self-creation is perverted and hidden. In the ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’, (the planned Part 7 of Volume I which Marx decided not to include, usually known as ‘the missing Sixth Chapter'), Marx writes:

...Hence the rule of the capitalist over the worker is the rule of things over man, of dead labour over the living, of the product over the producer. For the commodities that become the instruments of rule over the workers (merely as the instruments of capital itself) are mere consequences of the process of production; they are its products. Thus at the level of material production, of the life-process in the realm of the social – for that is what the process of production is – we find the same situation that we find in religion at the ideological level, namely, the inversion of subject into object and vice versa. Viewed historically this inversion is the indispensable transition without which wealth as such, ie the relentless productive forces of social labour, which alone form the material base of a free human society, could not possibly be created by force at the expense of the majority. This antagonistic stage cannot be avoided, any more than it is possible for man to avoid the stage in which his spiritual energies are given a religious definition as powers independent of himself. What we are confronted by here is the alienation [Entfremdung] of man from his own labour. (Pelican Edition, p 990.)

Thus that alienation, cause of the suffering of billions of men and women, is also the source of their emancipation. The perversion of human creative activity, taking ever more insane shapes, continually meets the resistance of the human beings who are treated inhumanly as they bear its weight. That is what capital – and Capital – is about. The struggle between wage-earners and their employers is not an optional extra, but is the very heart of capita. Its many forms contain the struggle of human beings to be human, that is, to be self-consciously self-creative.

Capital and Self-Creation

We have seen how humans make themselves by simultaneously creating not only the physical conditions of their own life, but also the social forms within which this creation occurs. Hitherto, these forms have been alienated and have grown up unconsciously. In the early sections of Capital, the Hegelian phrase ‘behind their backs’ occurs more than once. In Hegel, it refers to the rise of consciousness, behind the back of self-consciousness. In Capital, Marx uses it when he describes the transformation of the division of labour from commodities to money and then to capital.

But the division of labour is an organisation of production which has grown up naturally, a web which has been and continues to be woven behind the backs of the producers of commodities. (p. 201.)

The misunderstanding of this aspect has been intensified by Engels’ mis-titling of the English translation of Volume One. Where Marx called his Volume ‘The Production-Process [Produktionsprozess] of Capital’, Engels allowed the translation to give ‘The Process of Capitalist Production’. We are given the impression that Marx was describing a system of producing goods under the conditions of ‘capitalism’, not of the continuing weaving of a web in which the producers are enmeshed. Marx never used the term ‘capitalism’ and his subject-matter is, in fact, something quite different: the way that the social relation capital produces and reproduces itself.

Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital itself is produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare [enthüllen]. (p.280.)

In a well-known passage in Chapter 1, Marx expresses more generally the problem raised by his aim of criticising political economy:

Reflection on the forms of human life, hence also scientific analysis of these forms, takes a course directly opposite to their real development. Reflection begins post festum, and therefore with the results of the process of development ready to hand. The forms which stamp products as commodities, and which are therefore the preliminary requirements for the circulation of commodities, already possess the fixed quality of natural forms of social life before men seek to give an account, not of their historical character, for in their eyes they are immutable, but of their content and meaning. (p. 168.)

Those old mystics had probed the contradictory structure of self-creation, but only in its heretical-religious form. How could they do anything more under the conditions of their time? Hegel took this much further, attempting to systematise that knowledge. Marx, living in the last stage of alienation, is able, in his critiques of religion, the state, philosophy and political economy, to pose the problem in the form in which its practical solution can be discerned: the communist revolution. Instead of the mystical loop, ‘God making humanity making God’, Marx must express an even more sharply contradictory movement, that of ‘human activity or self-change': humans make their own conditions of life, which in turn make humanity what it is. In its estranged shape, labour produces capital, which in turn enslaves labour.

Marx’s achievement is to succeed in stripping away from the process of production its inhuman integument, revealing its true, human structure as free self-creation. Perhaps we should rather say, he has expressed scientifically that which the domination of social life by capital has laid bare. At the heart of his description of the labour process in general (in Chapter 7, Section 1 of Capital), is his combination of the elements of Aristotle’s poesis with the Hermetic understanding of imagination as an active power.

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the forces belonging to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order o appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way changes his own nature. ... A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. (pp 283-4)

Here is human activity, the activity of production which distinguishes the human being from the rest of the world, seen as free, conscious self-change.

The method of Capital had to express this contradictory movement. The succeeding categories in which Marx couches his critique of political economy, in which money negates and preserves commodity, capital negates and preserves money, and so on, demand a logical movement which

includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well. (Postface to the Second Edition of Capital.)

In a ‘doctrine’, an indoctrinator sets out what is ‘correct’, before his admiring – if somewhat obtuse – disciples. Marx’s approach is the polar opposite, for he shows the actual development of a living process revealing itself. Thus money is very old, but its secret cannot fully develop until it is transformed into capital. Then it is possible to see money’s essential inhumanity for what it is, but only through the self-destruction of the capital form in which the money form is a subordinate part.