November 27, 2013

Historical Materialism - who were Marx and Engels trying to influence in writing The German ideology?

A cartoon by Friedrich Engels of ragging party times
at the Hippel Cafe in Berlin, home of the Young Hegelians
In 1845 a young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, age 27 and 25 respectively, sat down to write one of their first joint works in what would prove to be the beginning of a life-long effort of collaboration. The two radicals were unable to find a publisher for their work, which would remain unprinted until the early 1930s; since then it has been understood as an important polemic against materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach which further deepened the method of historical materialism.

In writing The German Ideology, the young Marx and Engels no doubt believed (and, would later say) they were completing a work addressing an entire contemporary debate which was captivating a generation of German philosophy students. These thinkers, whose spirit had been inflamed by the jargon of Hegel’s dialectics, were struggling to turn from the nebulous world of the Spirit, to the world of everyday life with its political problems.

For those young Hegelians, Feuerbach therefore provided a sort of bridge; his theories presented a kind of intellectual passage-way built partly of older French Enlightenment thinking (which saw man as a product of nature, not disembodied Spirit) and retaining some of Hegel’s dialectics. It is not God who creates man, Feuerbach essentially wrote, but man who creates God.

At this point, however, as Marx and Engels showed, Feuerbach failed to go far enough in two ways. First, he underestimated, seriously, the fact that man is a product of his social environment with all its conflicts. Feuerbach’s man was still another abstraction from how he really lives and acts. And secondly, Feuerbach’s philosophy was purely interpretive. The question of changing the world from that understanding gained, was simply left out.

But if the lack of radical action did not sit well with Marx and Engels, a whole current of the young Hegelians more or less embraced it, seeking to take another step by rather eclectically linking the hands of Feuerbach’s materialism with English and French early socialists.  

Today, this group is relatively unknown except for Marx and Engels’ dismissive remarks in the German Ideology, the Communist Manifesto, and a few other places.  But at the time, the German “True socialists” -- so named because they claimed to have found the clue to the “true man” in the evolution of  property relationships -- were an established group, publishing their own journals and having many lively discussions around beer gardens and campuses.

Not at all convinced of the “class struggle,” the "True Socialists" understood their project as the realization of some kind of human essence. In practice it meant ‘dressing up’ the language of earlier socialists into that of respectable German philosophy -- oftentimes with ridiculous results, Marx and Engels would write in the Communist Manifesto about the "True Socialists."

It is well known how the monks wrote silly lives of Catholic Saints over the manuscripts on which the classical works of ancient heathendom had been written. The German literati reversed this process with the profane French literature. They wrote their philosophical nonsense beneath the French original. For instance, beneath the French criticism of the economic functions of money, they wrote “Alienation of Humanity”, and beneath the French criticism of the bourgeois state they wrote “Dethronement of the Category of the General”, and so forth. The introduction of these philosophical phrases at the back of the French historical criticisms, they dubbed “Philosophy of Action”, “True Socialism”, “German Science of Socialism”, “Philosophical Foundation of Socialism”, and so on.

While Dr Karl Grun was a typical proponent of “True Socialism,” their popularity was brief.  Some would later become close associates of Marx and Engels; while others dropped their socialist phraseology during the revolutions of 1848. After those clashes, “True Socialism” quickly faded away. But in some ways their endeavor, and therefore Marx and Engels’ critique, has relevance today as certain intellectuals attempt to “re-brand” an ideology with long-winded sentences and new language, rendering it somewhat innocuous.

As to the manuscript which became what we know as the German Ideology, it saw publication in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Untill that time it essentially collected dust, although Engels brushed it off in 1888 and published a mini-version -- Theses on Feuerbach -- which we reprint below. The Thesis lives on as a popular text, being the most concise summaries of historical materialism Marx and Engels perhaps ever wrote:


The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.
Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence, in The Essence of Christianity, he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation. Hence he does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary”, of “practical-critical”, activity.


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 — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.


The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, 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-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.


Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis.
But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.


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


Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.
In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.
Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:
  1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.
  2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.


Feuerbach, consequently, does not see that the “religious sentiment” is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyses belongs to a particular form of society.


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.


The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.


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


The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

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