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Part II, Chapter IV

Part II. Karl Marx: Ideology Critique as Interpretation and Transformation of the World


Karl Marx developing revolutionary theory.

Chapter IV. Anticipations: The Early Works

Marxism is not just one more show in a repertoire of philosophical fantasies. When the curtain rises, it is not to reveal a self-contained, harmonic production, but rather to present the analysis of the drama which unfolds itself outside. No passive entertainment, the show charges admission: active commitment to a better world. The line, “something is foul in the state of Denmark,” is not discovered mid-way, but presupposed by the whole. Marxism is the philosophy of revolution, stating the preconditions for change, but not deducing its desirability as though it required proof. Construed as a system, Marx’s thought presupposes only the self-contradictory social reality which it articulates.

Insofar as one distinguishes Marx’s thought from the social system he criticizes, the presupposition of the latter by the former can be viewed in two ways. Marx’s methodology is a response to the contradictory character of capitalist society, while his interpretation of that society as fundamentally contradictory is related to his critical approach. This paradoxical or, perhaps better, circular structure to Marx’s project defines its uniqueness. Rejecting the relativism of manifold world views – which are at any rate unconsciously conditioned by social relations – Marx develops his outlook through research into social objectivity. At the same time, he avoids pre-critical metaphysics by realizing that the comprehension of capitalist society presupposes a theoretical framework. The priority of social existence over thought, due at least to the fact that any thinker finds himself always already within a social structure which he did not create, rescues from the charge of arbitrariness even Marx’s most basic critical intention, itself a consequence of the inadequacies of the society in which he found himself. The partial identity, through mediation, of subject and object, of social critic and capitalist society, manifests itself in the tendential identity of the theoretician’s social critique of theory and capitalist society’s theoretical critique of its own contradictory character.

The anti-philosophical remarks of the early Marx outline only a fraction of the extensive system of thought they implicate; they represent the mere peak of an iceberg kept submerged of late in the murky waters of cold-war rhetoric. Broken off of the whole, an isolated sampling of Marx’s thought must dissolve like an ice cube in an eclectic cocktail of ideas, watering down the potency while pretending to revolutionize. The point is to comprehend the unity of Marx’s thought in its relation to social reality and practice. Dependent upon its social context for the content of its presuppositions, Marxism nevertheless carries out its analysis autonomously, using the historically given categories and contradictions to transcend their own apparent limitations. The results stand as a condemnation of existing social relations, but not as a merely moral disgust. Rather, truth and falsity have been separated out of ideology, concepts have been re-forged through criticism, the cores of problems have been exposed and potentials for rectification have been revealed.

The guiding theme of the following interpretation of Marx is that he places the concept of commodity production at the center of his theory of bourgeois (capitalist) society, with profound consequences for the philosophical trappings of this theory. Such an understanding of Marx is in conscious opposition to several prevalent tendencies in the secondary literature. Too often Marx’s youthful references to alienation in the Manuscripts are sighted as moralistic, psychologistic or idealistic – at any rate, crudely separated from the mature economic analyses. The notion of praxis in the Theses is hypostatized into the basis of an ontology of praxis, as though the concept was not designed in this context precisely to attack the ahistorical conceptualizations of Feuerbach. In contrast to those philosophically speculative interpretations, other discussions take Marx’s political economy to be merely an empirical science whose validity stands and falls solely in the comparison of its isolated parts to competing hypotheses in that science: from Adam Smith to Paul Samuelson. The historical footnotes to Capital most extensively elaborated in the section on “Forms Which Precede Capitalist Production” in the Grundrisse – are taken by many to be identical either to Hegelian universal history, thought to reduce history to an empty tripartite schema, or to naive historiology, the attempt to restate “that which was.” It is necessary to oppose these procedures of divide and conquer which tear the unity of Marx’s thought asunder along chronological lines by distinguishing Marx the philosopher, sociologist, economist, revolutionary, humanist and private citizen, thereby, intentionally or not, reducing each misunderstood segment to meaninglessness under the pretext of saving it from a questionable whole.

The opposition to the fragmentation of Marx’s work receives its justification in the essential unity of Marx’s underlying purposes throughout his writings. in focusing on commodity production, the interpretation emphasizes that cornerstone of Marx’s analyses which is implicitly intended with the terms “alienated labor” and “praxis,” explicitly with those of “production,” “free labor” and “commodity fetishism.” Accordingly, the two most popular early writings, Alienated Labor (August 1844) and Theses on Feuerbach (March 1845), will be interpreted by, in effect, introducing the concept of commodity production into the discussions which are couched in more ambiguous terms: alienated labor and social praxis. Through this paraphrasing, Marx will be shown to be arguing similar points in his early, philosophical works as in his mature, economic writings, subsequently to be considered. The “Introduction” (August/September 1857) to the Grundrisse presents the most explicit argument for using the concept of commodity production as the basis for an understanding of the capitalist system. The historical account in the Grundrisse, the chapter on “Forms Which Precede Capitalist Production” (December/January 1858), is not a history in the normal sense, but a retrospective account of the development of the material preconditions of commodity production.

Finally, it will merely be necessary to round out the picture of the unity of Marx’s work with a glance at Capital (1867), which recapitulates the by now familiar themes in the terms of a fully elaborated system. Here the commodity is analyzed into its two aspects: use value and exchange value; the contradiction between these is shown to be at the root of fetishism; and the theory of surplus value, which also derives from this contradiction in commodity production, is elaborated into a theory of industrial society. Of particular interest are the relation Marx establishes between his procedure of abstraction and developments in society; the ontological implications he draws from the commodity character of the products of capitalist production; and the use of the results of these analyses for his demystification of fetishism.

 The Primacy of Commodity Production for Interpretation

The joy of liberal revisionism and the embarrassment of reactionary dogmatism find their source in Marx’s early manuscripts, texts which therefore provide a natural starting point for a contemporary evaluation of Marx’s foundations for social theory. Marx’s popular discussion of alienated labor, when carefully viewed as an analysis of commodity production, is a first major document of his “turn” from philosophy and law to political economy as the object of ideology critique. Although not yet the explicit center of attention, the concept of the commodity is already present, to be developed in the succeeding thirty years in terms of the contradiction between use value and exchange value, the labor form of value and the appropriation of surplus value. Moreover, Marx’s method of starting from the given reality and the prevalent ideologies to develop his own conceptualizations is clearly at work, despite the misleading form of logical (dialectical) derivations from the concept. A further cause for confusion is Marx’s penchant for adapting traditionally metaphysical terms to an anti-metaphysical project. (This procedure is not without its justifications, but the danger of misinterpretation is enormous, as is clear from the way it confused Heidegger, who had himself used the technique against metaphysics.) With these dangers in mind, we turn to Marx’s most controversial ten page text.

The first of the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) is divided under the traditional headings of political economy: “Wages of Labor,” “Profit of Capital” and “Rent of Land,” with a concluding section referred to as “Alienated Labor.” This last section begins by summarizing the procedure and results of what preceded:

We have proceeded from the presuppositions of political economy. We have accepted its language and its laws. We presupposed private property, the separation of labor, capital and land, hence of wages, profit of capital and rent, likewise the division of labor, competition, the concept of exchange value, etc. From political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity, the most miserable commodity; that the misery of the worker is inversely proportional to the power and volume of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands and thus the revival of monopoly in a more frightful form; and finally that the distinction between capitalist and landowner, between agricultural laborer and industrial worker, disappears and the whole society must divide into the two classes of proprietors and property-less workers.[1]

Marx’s procedure is a dialectical form of “immanent critique.” In criticizing the theories of bourgeois political economy, Marx does not attack from an alternative position based on its own set of presuppositions, but starts out from the most highly developed form of that theory itself. From within the questionable position, Marx subjects its concepts, suppositions and analyses to a form of critical self-reflection, calling them into question by relating them to each other, seeking their origins, and further developing them into a reductio ad absurdum. Thus, “just exchange” leads by a development of its very logic to its opposite: an inverse relationship between the worker’s wealth and the value of his products; competition likewise results in monopoly; and, finally, the separation of capital and land-ownership develops into a unified class of proprietors.

Where has political economy gone wrong, then, according to Marx? It starts from the fact of private property, but it establishes this fact in abstract laws rather than analyzing it in terms of (1) related concepts, (2) its historical origin or (3) its implications:

Political economy proceeds from the fact of private property. It does not explain private property. It grasps (fassen) the actual, material process of private property in abstract and general formulas which it then takes as laws. It does not comprehend (begreifen) these laws, that is, does not prove them as proceeding from the nature of private property.[2]

In terms of the distinction drawn in Chapter I above between explanation and interpretation (Marx uses the terms grasp and comprehend), traditional political economy has limited itself to explaining market phenomena in terms of a set of laws and concepts, without bothering to interpret these laws and concepts within an encompassing theory of society so that the laws and concepts could be comprehended as elements of a meaningful whole. Of course, the political economists did have a world view in terms of which they interpreted their economic theory, but this bourgeois ideology (in the strictest sense of the term) was merely superimposed on the science: it did not grow out of the relationships within the science. Further, both the ideology and the science lacked reflection upon their historical limitations. Marx’s originality lay in the unifying of explanatory science and interpretive framework. Incorporating historical reflection at the heart of this unity, Marx’s thought becomes “theory,” lacking the arbitrariness of world view and the provinciality of ideology.

Marx’s dialectical “comprehension” of the phenomenon of private property can be conceived as a three-pronged attack: (1) He sets out to “grasp the essential connection among private property, greed, division of labor, capital, . . .” (2) He wants to show how the concepts and relationships of capitalism are “necessary, inevitable, natural consequences” of an historical development whose previous stage of feudalism incorporated monopoly, the guild, and feudal property. (3) As a result of these analyses, he hopes to dispel the ideology of private property, just exchange, individualism. Marx’s strategy – in the Manuscripts, as in later writings – is to show that commodity production is the essential determinant, specifying the historical content of property, exchange and the individual in bourgeois society.

Anticipating this priority of the productive realm, Marx starts from a fact about production, rather than about property, later deriving private property as a consequence of capitalist relations of production. Rejecting the traditional starting point of philosophy with some unconditioned concept or situation – Hegel’s “Being” or political economy’s “state of nature” – Marx proceeds from a “political-economic, present fact.” Not only is this an economic fact visible in the contemporary society – as was the political economist’s fact of private property – but it is a theoretical “fact” at this stage of analysis in Marx’s Manuscripts, the result of his preceding immanent critique of the theories of the political economists. The fact, a moral indictment of capitalism, a contradiction in its ideology and an indication of its severe limitations, is formulated as follows:

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes a cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. . . . labor not only produces commodities. It produces itself and the worker as a commodity.[3]

That such a “fact” provides the basis of Marx’s theory in his manuscript is revealing of its anti-epistemological attitude. The belief that no theory of knowledge can independently precede the theory of society is premised upon a conclusion Marx later elaborated in The German Ideology: the sensuous world is the product of industry and societal conditions; it is an historical result. Rejecting Kant’s emphasis on ahistorical and non-social categories of pure reason, Marx saw the condition of the possibility of knowledge, whether scientific or everyday, in the present totality of social practice. More in agreement with Hegel that knowledge – as the mediation of subject and object with the help of concepts – is itself mediated by the object rather than merely structured by an unmediated consciousness, Marx nevertheless rejected Hegel’s concern with the concept as origin and result of the historical process. The concept is relegated by Marx to the position of an intermediate moment in the comprehension of socio-historical reality. Marx’s theory presupposes an objective world already mediated by historical human activity. His goal is to comprehend this world by conceptually articulating the mediations which define it. For these reasons, Marx begins with a fact of present reality. That this fact is known a posteriori, does not leave its choice arbitrary. Anticipating the analysis to follow, it is chosen centrally so as to provide essential categories which can be elaborated in the final theory. Consequently, as subsequent research reveals new insights, the starting point of the presentation must be modified.

The fact from which Marx starts in the manuscripts is historically specific, not valid for all times, but this does not mean it was chronologically limited to Marx’s time and perhaps explainable by accidental circumstances of politics or inflation. Rather, the fact is stated with complete generality. Its specificity first becomes apparent when one notes that workers did not always produce large amounts of “wealth” – traditional peasants produced mainly food for themselves and their dependents. The worker has not primarily produced “commodities” in all epochs, previously he produced mostly “use values” for immediate consumption, rather than “exchange values” for sale. Marx’s fact is thus just as timely as commodity production itself as the dominant form of production. When Marx refers to production in his essay, he is thinking of commodity production; labor is wage labor which produces commodities in exchange for money; products are commodities made solely for the purpose of being sold; private property is the ownership of the material preconditions of commodity production; and wealth is abstract value, the monetary worth of commodities. These concepts of political economy are thus components of a theory of capitalist society. Their content is defined by the relationships which inhere in this system as distinguished from other systems, such as the feudal society out of which it grew. This already suggests the importance of Marx’s three-fold procedure: (1) To grasp the systematic connections among the concepts is not only part of what it means to analyze the concepts themselves, but also a necessary step in relating the concepts to social reality. (2) Tracing the logic of development of the concepts as aspects of the real social system dispels the myth of eternality, suggesting future contradictory developments and a perspective for revolutionary change. (3) The first two steps involve a rejection of liberal ideology, which ignores and distorts the conceptual interrelationships and enthrones the concepts in an aura of eternality and necessity.

By carefully distinguishing capitalism from previous social systems and drawing the consequences of this distinction for theories of society, Marx transcended Hegel and Adam Smith simultaneously and criticized both economic theory and practice in one blow. For it then became clear that production of commodities is “alienated” labor not merely in the Hegelian sense of a subject externalizing himself in the objective world – applicable to all forms of society and scarcely to be transcended outside the realm of mind – but in the capitalistic sense that the product is someone else’s property. With this all-important twist, the dialectic of consciousness with nature, its recognition of the other and its coming to self-awareness are essentially altered. It can then be seen that Hegel is just as guilty as the economists, from whom he gleaned much of his material, of treating certain bourgeois categories, such as private property, without concern for their social specificity and therefore without awareness of their actual content. The apologetic nature of political economy, precisely in its utopian ambitions, can be attributed to its absolutizing of capitalist categories, judging all past and possible social forms by the standards inherent in capitalism alone, and necessarily concluding that capitalism is the most “rational” (in this context itself an enlightenment value with specifically capitalistic content). Only by carefully distinguishing that which is unique to capitalist reality and its conceptualizations, can Marx reveal how capitalism entails both new emancipatory potentials and increased repressions.

The Alienated World

Marx’s often puzzling remarks and rambling style in the Manuscripts can be greatly clarified simply by bearing in mind that alienated labor always refers to commodity production. Marx literally underlines this when he writes: “Political economy conceals the alienation in the nature of labor by ignoring the direct relationship between the laborer (labor) and production.”[4] Marx traces the effect upon the laborer of the fact that his labor is part of the process of commodity production; the whole analysis of alienation follows from this. Centering on the laborer, Marx successively shows that, as a result of alienation from his product as something which will neither belong to him nor be consumed by him, the laborer is alienated from (1) nature, (2) himself, (3) humanity, and (4) other people.[5] These manifold forms of alienation are results of the “present fact of political economy” from which Marx starts out. The contradictory relationships in which the wage laborer becomes entangled stem from the central contradiction: commodity production. Production in general is the appropriation (Aneignung, making one’s own) of nature, but commodity production specifically is making something someone else’s – the capitalist’s and then the purchaser’s – thus alienation (Entfremdung, making strange). These contradictions are not mere figments of logic, but historical results.

 (1) Viewed historically, the introduction of commodity production into an economy based on self-sustaining economic units (extended family or estate) with marginal trade started a process which led to the dissolution of those units, the establishment of a commodity-based economy and the progressive impoverishment of the workers relative to the social standard of living. The more the worker turned from the direct satisfaction of his specific needs to commodity production, the less he owned in the way of materials, equipment and even food. Increasingly, the worker had to turn to someone else who could supply these preconditions of labor and life. Eventually, the laborer was left with nothing but his physical labor power, and he was reliant upon selling that to keep alive. Separated from the land and hereditary estate, the worker became alienated from nature as source of the preconditions of his occupational and physical existence because these preconditions now belonged to someone else. This is one sense in which the worker becomes poorer the more commodities he produces: he becomes alienated from nature. This alienation is a result of commodity production itself as a mode of production and as a determinant of historical development.

 (2) Another such result is the determination of the laborer himself as a commodity. No longer producing in accordance with his particular needs and desires, his activity, which he is forced to sell on the market, is usually controlled by someone else and is always aimed at satisfying needs of some unknown, hence abstract, other. Divorced from the source of the meaning of his own existence, his own activity, the laborer is alienated from himself. An illegitimate metaphysical distinction has been drawn – by society, not by thought – between the individual and his activity, where the latter belongs to some other individual. A pervasive schizophrenia has manifested itself in society, leaving a whole class of people with not two, but only half a personality.

 (3) The fragmentation of the worker – not only into psychological ego and objective activity, but into cripplingly specialized fragments of activity –is particularly disturbing because it comes as the result of the process of progressive universality. Capitalism involved the dissolution of the traditional limitations upon human development and brought with it the technology to create universally, according to “intrinsic standards.” The freedom potentially available to the individual as a result of his belonging to the “present and living species” is, however, repressed by the form of commodity production, which reduces this “free spontaneous activity” to a mere means for the laborer’s physical existence. Unable to benefit from humanity’s great advances, the wage laborer is alienated from the very notion of mankind, an ideal unattainable, foreign to its members.

 (4) In the end, the commodity-based economy reduces human communities to the “war of all against all” which political economy and bourgeois philosophy had projected back to society’s origins. Alienated from his product, nature, himself and mankind, the laborer is necessarily alienated from others, whether they be the Capitalists who appropriate the product immediately, the purchasers who finally consume it or fellow workers who compete for jobs. The other, who once may have helped out for the common good or shared a common world, has in capitalist society become part of a system which tears the laborer’s life and world asunder. The abstract nature of commodity relations, which reduce everything to monetary terms, pits the laborer concretely against society as the Fichtean Other.

Marx’s classic presentation of alienated labor in its various aspects has not yet turned to the social context in which commodity production unfolds its consequences. In analyzing alienation, Marx has analyzed the structural relations between the laborer and his product in the process of commodity production and he has done this in terms of the effects upon the laborer. Next he must turn to the historic process in which commodity production establishes itself. Marx has only one further point to make, namely that the existence of the capitalist is a necessary corollary to alienated labor. After all, Marx reasons, if the product of labor is alien to its producer, it must belong to another person. Further, the laborer will necessarily relate to this other person in terms of the process of production as an “alien, hostile, powerful man independent of him,” as the lord of his product.

The process of production thus creates, along with alienation in its various aspects, the relation in which the producer stands to the lord of labor, the owner of the materials and means of production, the designator of the details of production, the payer of wages for support. the owner of the product. “The relations of alienated labor, of commodity production, thus produce the relation of the capitalist to labor. Private property is thus product, result and necessary consequence of externalized labor, of the external relation of the laborer to nature and to himself.”[6] Private property is another expression of capital, as opposed to the wages of labor. The point is that the accumulation of wealth (materials, equipment and money) in the hands of a few is a necessary consequence of commodity production by the masses. Political economy, by contrast, starts from the concept of private property as though it were an ageless notion and from an imaginary primordial situation in which most people had no property and therefore had to exchange their labor time for money to meet their needs. Wage labor was thus said to result from private property, if, indeed, a relation was ever drawn. This prevalent view justifies alienated labor, then, in terms of the ideology of just exchange. Marx’s view, on the other hand, shows commodity production to be not only the basis of an exploitative system, but the original cause of the inequitable distribution of wealth as well – far from a rational solution to a “natural” inequality.

In true dialectical fashion, Marx not only builds his new view on the rubble of the ideological edifice he destroyed, but indicates as well how the mistaken appearance arose: “Only at the final culmination of the development of private property does this, its secret, reappear – namely, that on the one hand it is the product of externalized labor and that secondly it is the means through which labor externalizes itself, the realization of this externalization.”[7]

We can reconstruct the history of private property as follows: Early, undeveloped forms of private property such as merchants capital provided a basis for commodity production to begin through organization of traditional home crafts into manufacturing systems. This heralded the social division of labor into property-less laborer and propertied non-laborers. Although presupposing the existence of private property in some elementary form, commodity production itself reproduced and developed its preconditions; it was a motor of the capitalist accumulation which bourgeois political economy projected back to an ahistorical state of nature in which the clever and physically powerful greedily took from the weaker people. Because commodity production historically presupposes private property, property was assumed to be systematically prior. In its developed form, however – as industrial capital – it is a result. The secret of private property is really a secret of commodities and their fetishism, for property is the fetishization of interpersonal relations. This is a problem whose explication must await the discussion of Capital. Here it is merely important to note Marx’s characteristic insight that what is historically prior may at the end of its development retrospectively be seen to be logically derivative in terms of a contemporary conceptual framework of interpretation.

Marx draws two conclusions from his consideration of private property and the externalized labor of commodity production. First, he claims that one can develop all the categories of political economy with the aid of the concept of alienated labor and that each resultant category (like private property) will be but a particular aspect thereof. Alienation, in the sense of the character of the relations of commodity production, is thus the analytic “essence” of the capitalist system. Marx’s second conclusion is that the analysis of the historical roots of our society should be structured in terms of the relationship of externalized labor to the history of mankind, rather than as the traditional search for the origins of private property.

These two conclusions are central to Marx’s later writings. The “Introduction” to the Grundrisse argues for the importance of the role played by the essential analytic concept and the opening chapter of Capital presents the concept of the commodity as such an essence in terms of which one can develop all the other categories of a theory of capitalist society. On the other hand, the section of the Grundrisse on the “Forms Which Precede Capitalist Production” traces the development up to and during the bourgeois era in terms of the relationship of the forms of labor to the progress of mankind. Finally, drawing on all this, Capital presents an historically specific analysis of capitalist production in terms of the form of value which corresponds to alienated labor.

If Marx’s argument in the manuscript on alienated labor appears shaky or his vocabulary misleading, retaining concepts like “alienation” and “externalization” from Feuerbach and Hegel, whom he criticized, rather than explicitly referring to commodity production throughout, perhaps this explains his not publishing the manuscripts. Perhaps this is a reason for going on to the later formulations, rather than for rejecting Marx as idealistic, impressionistic, existentialistic. After a look at his Theses on Feuerbach, de rigeur for a consideration of his key concepts, we will pick up Marx’s argument about commodity production in those sections of the Grundrisse and Capital referred to. They should provide adequate additional experience with his approach.

Ideology Critique and the Transformation of the World

Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach deserve to be quoted in full and commented on individually:

 (1) The chief defect of all previous materialism (including Feuerbach’s) is that the object, reality, sensuousness is conceived only in the form of the object or image, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence in opposition to materialism the active side was developed abstractly by idealism, which naturally does not know actual, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects actually different from thought objects: but he does not comprehend human activity itself as objective activity. Hence in The Essence of Christianity he regards only the theoretical attitude as the truly human attitude, while practice is understood only in its dirtily Jewish form of appearance. Consequently he does not comprehend the significance of “revolutionary,” of “practical critical” activity.[8]

Production as Marx’s analytic category is a synthesis of the constitutive function and of sensuous perception, of Hegelian idealism and Feuerbachian materialism. Social practice, defined by the prevailing form of production and the corresponding social relations, is thus the activity by which mankind constitutes the objective world in which it is actively situated, not merely the adoption of a theoretical or passively receptive stance toward an external world. Once this is recognized, it becomes clear that critical activity involves actually changing the mode of production, a far cry from stopping with the initial step of changing a few people’s minds as did Hegel and Feuerbach.

 (2) The question whether human thinking can reach objective truth is not a question of theory, but a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, actuality and power, this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute about the actuality or non-actuality of thinking, thinking isolated from practice, is a purely scholastic question.

Thought cannot meaningfully be divorced from the reality of social practice: not only because that provides its object, but because the thinker is historically situated. Thus, even in the case of a utopian vision, its truth lies in the possibilities of its achievement, not merely in the abstract validity of its arguments and values. (Cf. thesis #11 on the unity of theory and practice.)

 (3) The materialistic doctrine concerning the change of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine must divide society into two parts, one of which towers above. The coincidence of the change of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be comprehended and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

The glimmers of hope twinkling in the future and the most progressive thoughts of the age have a common source: possibilities inherent in the past and present. There is no standpoint of objective knowledge on the other side of now and anyone who wants to help consciously create a better future – for the future will be created by people whether they consciously and democratically direct their efforts or let other people manipulate them – must educate himself about the society and potentials for change by situating his thought in the context of the revolutionary task of his society. Such self-education can take place only in unity with an activity which transforms the social circumstances in which all thought is founded. Transformative practice, if it is to be self-conscious, necessarily transforms the theory of society along with the mode of production.

 (4) Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, the duplication of the world into a religious and secular world. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But the fact that the secular basis becomes separate from itself and establishes an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavage and self-contradictoriness of the secular basis. Thus the latter must itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. For instance, after the earthly family is found to be the secret of the holy family, the former itself must then be theoretically and practically nullified.

The key to uncovering forgotten potentials is the ideology critique of repressed embarrassments. Non-radical criticism is satisfied to stop after exposing the embarrassment in the first of the five steps which constitute ideology critique: (a) Demystify; reveal the ideology to be a false consciousness. (b) State the social causes of the rationalization; uncover its social necessity. (c) Construct a theory of society from the hints given by the ideology’s moment of truth and by the specific necessity of its false aspect. (d) Analyze the possibilities of changing the society in terms of eliminating the social contradictions which necessitated the ideology and redirecting the energies which it sublimated. (e) Follow the inherent demands of the ideology critique to change society at its roots; transform the essence of man, human practice.

Religion, as an opiate, not only acts as a narcotic in blurring the perception of social domination (by despot, aristocracy, king or capitalist) by substituting the illusory image of God, but it stands as a symptom in which critical thought can discern an oppression of consciousness necessitated by economic enslavement. No longer worshipped in their sublimated image, the chains which are the proletariat’s only possession become an abomination to their captives. The struggle for emancipation is the natural consequence of an ideology critique founded in social objectivity and encouraged to run its course.

 (5) Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants perception but he does not comprehend sensuousness as practical human-sensuous activity.

The rejection of the idealist’s transcendental ego cannot rest content with placing the mind in a body conceived of in ahistorical-biological terms. As essentially practical activity, sensuous perception takes place in an historically specific social context.

 (6) Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual. In its actuality it is the ensemble of social relationships. Feuerbach, who does not go into the criticism of this actual essence, is hence compelled (1) to abstract from the historical process and to establish religious feeling as something self-contained and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual; (2) to view the essence of man merely as “species,” as the inner, dumb generality which unites the many individuals naturally.

The essence of man is in each instance related to the present and living species, defined by its social practice. The essence is not to be sought in the biological specimen, but in the ensemble of social relations. Social theory’s question, What is man?, today finds its answer in the capitalist relations of production, not in supposedly eternal abstractions.

 (7) Feuerbach does not see, consequently, that “religious feeling” is itself a social product and that the abstract individual he analyzes belongs to a particular form of society.

The individual – underlying substrate for ahistorical definitions of man – is itself a product of historical development and ideological sophistication.

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

The comprehension of bourgeois social practice as the origin of fetishism is the key to untangling the confusions and illusions surrounding social existence.

 (9) The highest point attained by perceptual materialism, that is, materialism that does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the view of separate individuals and civil society.

The highest stage reached by philosophy before Marx, or by those subsequent philosophies which did not learn from him, was still restricted by the limitations of bourgeois society and the controlling interests of the bourgeoisie, for it did not reflect upon the effects of its social preconditions.

 (10) The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or socialized humanity.

In transcending the limitations of bourgeois philosophy by reflecting upon the limitations and contradictions of bourgeois society, Marx strives for a society in which conflicting class interests have been resolved by the elimination of the social basis of classes.

 (11) The philosophers have merely interpreted the world differently; everything depends, however, on transforming it.

Mere interpretation is not to be replaced by mere activity; the two moments gain new meaning from a pervasive unity. The initial phase of demythologizing is motivated by a critical suspicion that the best of all possible worlds is a bitter struggle away, a suspicion which seeks a different interpretation of the world in the hopes that its specifics will point the way to a social transformation and help rally the necessary forces. The initial step of interpretation is therefore crucial. From it must follow the self-education of the revolutionaries: a theory of the society to be transformed: ideological weapons for the causes and a strategy based upon immanent potentials of both the process of change and the establishment of a better world. To accomplish these tasks coherently and powerfully, the ideology critique cannot be arbitrary. Critical thought must burrow into the core of the social world, contemporary practice, the production of daily social existence, the creation of commodities and the reinforcement of the commodity mode of production.

The unity of theory and practice in Marx’s work is not the subjugation of thought to political activism. Practice involves above all the production of material goods, but also the reproduction of social relations (including the relations of production), attitudes, legal order, military defense, etc. Capital, a theoretical work, stands in a unity with the practice of nineteenth century European society in a number or ways:

 (a) It is a reflection upon that practice, bringing people to a comprehension of the practice in which they are involved.

 (b) Thereby, it is part of that practice itself; the self-conscious moment.

 (c) It is conditioned by that practice, which provides its motivation and possibility in many ways.

 (d) Its goal is to restructure that practice by pointing to structural contradictions and potentials for change.

 (e) In these mediated, namely theoretical, ways, Capital is a political act.

By focusing on the realm of production, Marx was able to concretize each of these points of unity in terms of the proletariat, thereby arriving at a concrete theory of the potential for transforming the world in terms of a revolutionary subject-object of theoretically informed transformative practice.

Marx believed that every social theory is conditioned by its social context, so that for every interpretation of the world there is a relation and interpenetration of theory and practice. Marx’s own approach differs from others – whether contractual, idealistic or scientistic – in that his consciousness of this relation led him to unify his theory and social practice by constructing his methodology primarily in terms of this relation. Recognizing that his manner of abstraction and his central categories had their conditions of possibility in the society whose structure they were designed to articulate, Marx could clearly define the socio-historical specificity of his concepts and he could perceive their interrelationships in terms of the structure of bourgeois society. Above all, Marx’s critical thrust was a conscious response to the social mystification arising from the fetishism of commodities; it is as a conscious response to the ideological character of capitalist society that Marx transforms philosophy into ideology critique and the critique of political economy. The following chapters explore the result of this transformation of philosophical interpretation of the world into transformative interpretation, the critical hermeneutic of capitalist society.


[1] Karl Marx, “Alienated labor,” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967), p. 287. Cf. Karl Marx, Die entfremdete Arbeit,” Okonomisch-Philosophische Manuskripten (1844) in Karl Marx, Texte zu Methode und Praxis (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1966, Bd. II, S. 50f.

[2] Ibid., p. 287, S. 51.

[3] Ibid., p. 289, S. 52.

[4] Ibid., p. 291, S. 54.

[5] This is Marx’s list in his manuscript. Since 1844, commodity relations – originating in the relation of the laborer to his product as a commodity – have spread throughout all sectors of society. Marxist cultural criticism (Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno, e.g.) has, for instance, more recently analyzed the consequent effect on art. The recent emphasis upon consumption, which some would argue makes Marxism obsolete, can itself be traced to the relations of production, as Enzensberger suggests in his reply to the argument that ecological considerations call for moderation by consumers (Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, “Critique of political ecology,” New Left Review, No. 84, p. 30; Cf. the quotation from Marx in footnote 3 above):

To ask the individual wage-earner to differentiate between his ‘real’ and his ‘artificial’ needs is to mistake his real situation. Both are so closely connected that they constitute a relationship which is subjectively and objectively invisible. Hunger for commodities, in all its blindness, is a product of the production of commodities, which could only be suppressed by force.

[6] Cf. ibid., p. 297, S. 60.

[7] Ibid., p. 298, S. 60.

[8] The Theses on Feuerbach are quoted in full from the Writings cited in footnote 1 above and are compared with the German from the Texte, p. 400ff, S. 190ff.

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