Karl Marx and Human Self-creation, Cyril Smith (2002)
The contrast between Hermetism and what I have called ‘Enlightenment thinking’ centres on their opposing ways of regarding the relation of humanity and nature. For the scientific-rationalist, the material world and the world of human history are quite independent of each other, as are individuals and the social movement in which their lives are lived. Once humans have appeared, human reason, with which those beings are conveniently equipped, takes over and history can begin. As I have suggested, this view is not so far distant from that of the orthodox monotheist religions: if the natural and human worlds were freely created by God’s will, there was no reason why these two aspects should fit together. From this basic conception flows the way social change is seen, those individuals in the know being given – or at any rate taking – the job of scientifically working out what the world ought to be like, and then setting about making everybody else fit into it.
Socialism, including ‘Marxism’, had a similar angle on this question, sometimes seeing the natural world in terms of mechanically interacting particles of matter and humanity as a collection of individuals. Rather badly organised at present, humans might, if those qualified to do so think very hard, be found a better way to set up their mutual relationships. Relying heavily on the works of Engels, the ‘Marxists’ attempted to formulate an account of nature and natural science which they called ‘dialectical materialism’, and tried with great difficulty to make Marx fit into its patterns. In its Stalinist form, this was dogmatised into a kind of state religion. When, in the wake of the study of the early writings of Marx, some people began to pay attention to his early humanism, there was a tendency to keep this ‘Young Marx’ rigidly separate from the ‘mature’ or ‘scientific’ Marx. The barrier between ‘man’ and ‘nature’ had to be left intact.
But this eliminates the very questions of the fundamental unity (1) of humans with each other, and (2) of all of them with nature. For the mystics, Hermetics and magicians, the human is only an aspect of the natural and vice versa. ‘As above, so below’, they read in Hermes. We have seen that Hegel takes the side of the magicians on this issue: the movements of nature, history and psychology all express the unfolding of Spirit. But what about Marx? Does human self-emancipation, a task for humans to tackle in practice, require any specific conception of the universe?
In the inhuman shell of private property, money, capital and the state, Marx discovers why self-creation takes the form of a mystery. Once that ‘integument has burst asunder’, relations within a free association of producers, truly human relations, will be transparent and so will the relationship between nature and humanity as a whole. That is why he envisages – as a programme for the future – a united science of nature and humanity.
Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself the science of nature: there will be one science. (MECW, Vol. 3, p 304.)
Was this not, in essence, also the programme of Hermetism?
But living inside alienated society this can only be perceived dimly and with great difficulty. The path to the emancipation of humanity from the inhuman shell in which it has imprisoned itself is hidden from us. Tearing aside the veil which conceals it is only possible through a series of false steps, each of which negates its predecessor. Not that these ‘errors’ are simply wasted. Nobody can simply set aside the advances of the English and French revolutions – however hard some people try. But of course, a century and a half after Marx began this work, it is deeply frustrating to see ourselves apparently back at square one. However, if we face up to the gulf which we have to cross to get from bourgeois society to a human way of life, could it be otherwise?
When the years of revolution 1848-9 seemed to many people to have passed without leaving a trace, Marx wrote, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
Proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticise themselves constantly, interrupting themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic than before, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Here is the rose, here dance!
Each phase in the process of self-creation reveals new sides of the task of self-emancipation and poses it anew. That is why the scientific – in Marx’s sense of this word – aspect of this process cannot be a complete, finished ‘theoretical system’, which can then be ‘applied’, like a sort of all-purpose theoretical tool. ‘Revolutionary-critical activity’ demands open self-critical thinking, the direct opposite of all dogma.
Of course, that implies that Marx’s work must be seen as radically incomplete. For example, those who say that Marx did not completely understand Hegel usually mean to downgrade him by this remark. They are, of course, absolutely correct – and totally miss the point. Every great thinker must yield a mass of ideas which transcend, not only his own time and his own thought, but any particular reading of his work. That is why Marx continually returns to Hegel to win yet further insights and to criticise him anew. Naturally, similar considerations apply to any reading of Marx. Writing in the century before last, he could not have imagined the monstrous history of the twentieth century, or the depth of corruption of our time. I would only add that all future development must begin with his work. Taking it as the last word meant falsifying it, but ignoring it would have still more dangerous consequences.
I began by recalling that socialism used to be easy to understand. Now I hope we can see that Marx’s basic conceptions, like that of universal human emancipation and of the free association of individuals, are not complex, but go far beyond than any particular account of them. Simply describing a world without private property or money, however important these might be, misses the point. We are facing instead the practical and scientific tasks of human self-creation, and these are necessarily unbounded and undefined.
Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution. (Vol. 3, pp 296-7.)
Yes, but not as something completed, but as an unfinished task.