Marx’s Philosophical Context

 The short essay that follows is due to appear in the Bloomsbury Companion to Marx in 2018.

            There are four things one needs to know about Marx’s relationship to his immediate philosophical context.

1. In Germany in the 1840s, many people thought of philosophy as an intrinsically revolutionary endeavor. It is, of course, easy to derive revolutionary stances from even the most conventional philosophical starting-points. Philosophy begins by asking the student provisionally to set aside all of her uninspected beliefs, everything she has taken on trust, everything she thinks she knows just because she heard it from her parents or the priest or the neighborhood. The young philosopher who prorogues her views in this fashion may not be promising never to believe anything again, but she is pledging to re-admit only those beliefs she can rigorously justify. And really, how many of her old and merely habitual opinions does she expect will survive such a strictness? Philosophy for her is likely to be a remaking, a putting-out-of-play of all rival sources of belief—religious authority, the creedal bylaws of this or that institution, culture. If generalized across a population, philosophy would amount to the destruction of these latter. This point would hold for most philosophies, but to that classically heterodox profile, philosophers in the two generations before Marx added what we might call the German Idea—the idea, namely, that the mind is active and creative (and not just a screen or empty box). Other positions follow on from there: If the mind is creative and likely to insist on its creativity, it can never stand pat with what it has already created. The mind creates something, fashioning an argument or engineering an object for the building, but immediately turns against these achievements, against its own positions and designs, which it must henceforth regard as obstacles to further creation. The inherently active mind is always moving past what already exists. At any point in time, many people will be beyond, experiencing available social forms mostly as constriction, for which the mind without prompting will begin to devise alternatives, exercising its transformative freedom until such day as the mind’s freedom itself becomes the stuff of social life. The only institutions that the active mind would not feel compelled to move beyond would be ones that themselves affirmed and cultivated the mind’s activity—institutions, that is, that took the creative mind to be their very point. The German Idea thus issues in a distinctive political goal, a demand for institutions that we have made, that we know we have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly. The notion was once widespread that the French Revolution had been a uniquely philosophical event, but that notion is just the start of it. Nor is it enough to remark that Kant, Fichte, and Hegel had all supported the revolution, though this is true. The point is, rather, that by the time Marx started writing in the early 1840s, the younger philosophers most associated with the German Idea, thinkers ten or fifteen years older than him, had fashioned the doctrine of the active and creative mind into an openly anti-clerical and neo-Jacobin position. Philosophy could convincingly pose as the revolution re-done in thought.

2. Marx, who held a PhD in philosophy and who for a time foresaw a career for himself teaching philosophy in Bonn, arrived at many of his core positions by adapting arguments made by older philosophers in the radical cohort. The critique of political economy began as the philosophical critique of religion. Anyone can tell you that their job sucks or that most people are unhappy at work. When Marx first writes about the economy, he immediately makes claims quite a bit more extravagant than these. Chief among them is the idea that in capitalist societies, people relate to capital in the same distorted way that church-goers relate to God. There are three related claims that a radical critic of monotheism might make in this regard:

a) Humans invented God (and HaShem and the Almighty). God has always been a human creation.

b) Having invented God, humans then assigned to Him their own powers of creation. Some devout people act as though they lacked the powers to make and sustain the world, and yet when people worship God, they are actually worshiping their own capacities for thoughtful activity, reverencing the thinking human aggregate—what the Germans call Geist, which translates as both Mind and Spirit (and sometimes as Ghost—Germans talk about the Father, Son, and Holy Geist). There does indeed exist a supremely powerful force in the world, capable of marvels, a force both unseen and in a sense everywhere. It is not wrong to think that there exists an omnipresent spirit. But that force (spirit, Geist, mind) is just thought. Thought spans the world. When Christians go to church, then, they are worshipping thought as though it were something outside of them, a separate entity, and not their own innermost being and accomplishment.

c) Having projected thought onto a non-human and invented entity, humans then subordinate themselves to it. Endowing their own creation with a specious authority, they take themselves to be lesser than it.

Such is the core of the Hegelian account of alienation. What we’ll want to see now is that all three of these points carry over to Marx’s critique of capitalism.

a) People make capital. Everything that counts as capital is a human creation. This is true in at least two different senses. The institutions of capitalism are not inevitable or permanent or a geologically enduring feature of the natural landscape. People have built the institutions of capitalism: stock markets and commodity exchanges, the banking system, the factory system. They’ve invented double-entry bookkeeping. Workers also construct everything that counts as capital in the present. For a start, they make what economists call capital goods—the tangible items that get used in the production of goods and services. They make the machines (that the capitalist owns); they build the buildings (that the capitalist owns); they gather and do the initial processing on the not-really raw materials (that the capitalist buys and temporarily owns). And they obviously make the commodities that the capitalist owns—the finished goods waiting for sale that represent his investment at a certain stage in the economic cycle, although at any given moment not all capital will be invested in capital goods or sitting un-liquidly in a warehouse. One of Marx’s more searching points is that the wealth that is housed in financial assets (stocks, bonds, interest-bearing bank accounts) can also be traced back to work that someone had to do somewhere at some point—mostly someone other than the owner of that asset.

b) Having created capital, people then assign to it the powers of creation. This is true in several senses at once. People think that capital is productive—or that capital sets the entire economy in motion. Or: People think that the machines “are doing the work.” Or: People think that capital is “money making money”—or “putting money to work.” For Marx, these are all mystifications. Capital can’t produce anything. It certainly cannot “make money”—workers somewhere have to be creating something, have to be taking the stuff of the world and making it better, more useful, more conducive to human need and desire. Nor does money work. Only workers work. And yet, from a certain perspective, from a certain position within the social system, it can indeed look like my money is “making money,” magically, without anyone having had to work, though I can think this only because the person working wasn’t me. People in capitalist societies assign to capital the powers of creation that in fact belong to work alone.

c) Once the creative powers of work get misassigned to capital, actual workers are made subordinate to it. A created thing that lacks the powers to create is taken to be the all-creative thing and so allowed to lord it over the real creators.

What stands out from the perspective of 1844 is that this last sentence could serve equally well for the radical critique of God and the Marxist critique of capitalism. At this point, it becomes possible to adapt to the spheres of production and distribution the politics of the German Idea: We demand an economy that we have made, that we know we have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly.

3. Even as Marx adapts the positions of his philosophical friends and mentors, he cautions against the perils of philosophy itself. Philosophy turns out to be one more thing, like capitalism and the state, that the self-organizing working class is going to have to overcome. In the later sections of The Holy Family, when Marx decides to show off his philosophical education, he takes it upon himself to correct the Left Idealist account of eighteenth-century intellectual history, offering to counter the attacks mounted by some radical intellectuals on the “materialism” of the “French Enlightenment.” It is a telling moment. Marx does not call himself a “materialist” nearly as often as the subsequent history of Marxism would lead one to think. The Holy Family thus yields some valuable references for anyone who wants to show not only that Marx was a materialist, but that he regarded himself as such. One of the great surprises of that book, then, is that it is in these very paragraphs that Marx most clearly aligns himself, not with materialism as conventionally understood, but with a classical, anti-philosophical skepticism. This has some far-reaching consequences: He says first that the “materialism” he is promoting is not an ontology in its own right, though he recognizes that there is no single materialism, only miscellaneous and rival ontologies that are made to share that name. Rather than add to the list of contending materialisms, Marx would like to convince his readers to stop caring about ontology, to stop getting bogged down in ontological argument. “Materialism,” he says, is not a system, but a mode of attention, a giving-of-priority to the present and the onrushing future—a theory of practice, one might add on Marx’s behalf, ergo a bracketing of the metaphysics. On the basis of this passage alone, it would be advisable to substitute the word “pragmatism” every time Marx writes the word “materialism,” which silent amendment would head off one persistent misreading of Marx and return our attention to activity, which is where he wants it.  Skepticism or even something rather like Pyrrhonism enters the argument when Marx writes that the person who taught eighteenth-century thinkers how to exit metaphysics was Pierre Bayle, the exiled French Huguenot who, from his perch in Rotterdam in the 1690s, systematically exposed the folly and error of one thinker after another, doggedly taking on the already established mainstays of the late seventeenth-century philosophical scene (Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Leibniz), and then roasting, one by one, the European scene’s trending intellectual novelties (Newtonianism, Lockeanism). Marx’s way of praising Ludwig Feuerbach is to say that he is a second Bayle—Bayle, whose “weapon was skepticism.”

Another consequence, then: That Marx enrolls himself among the anti-philosophers is, among other things, a heavy blow to the Red Spinozists. He says more than once in The Holy Family: Not Spinoza! The monist ends up first on a list of thinkers from whom we should disassociate the “materialism” he is sticking up for. And then he says that Bayle “refuted chiefly Spinoza and Leibniz”—the implication being that we should follow Bayle and not these others. Anyone rejecting philosophy in some comprehensive way would, of course, at the same time be rejecting Hegel, who is typically thought of as the other candidate vying for Marx’s metaphysical allegiance. The point, then, would be that the entire Hegel vs. Spinoza debate, so recurrent a feature of Marxist philosophy, is misguided, because Marx openly points to a third contender. This, then, is the Marx who argues that communism is not a philosophy, that it does not trade in “ideas and principles”; that communism will not presume to “shape or mould” the thinking of the working classes; that communists will not be teachers; that philosophers always ask the wrong questions because they have inserted themselves into the world in the wrong way.

4. Marx borrowed the attack on philosophy from other thinkers in the radical philosophical scene, indeed, from the very thinkers against whom he wields his skepticism most bitingly. Skepticism was not only an alternative to Hegelianism, but also one of its more distinctive products. Marx got into a race with other Hegelians to see who could exit philosophy the fastest. There is a small difficulty here. When Marx was in his 20s, Hegelian philosophy produced not one but two competing anti-philosophies—opposing programs for talking people out of making philosophical arguments. The German Idea holds that the mind is active and creative. What’s at issue is whether you think that philosophers, just by virtue of practicing philosophy, are liable to overstate or understate that creativity. We can consider each possibility in turn. In the 1840s, that first position—the one that holds that philosophers are likely to exaggerate the powers of thought—was associated with the name Feuerbach. Hegel had already demanded that we naturalize God—that we recognize all claims about God to be claims about Geist, itself to be understood in naturalized and this-worldly terms (which is one good reason to translate Geist as mind rather than as spirit). Hegel had also emphasized what he called realization: Concepts are only worth positing to the extent that they can also be made real. It is one thing to argue, in the spirit of philosophical anthropology or during the last week of an existentialism seminar, that human beings are necessarily and always free. It is another thing to build the institutions that will house that freedom—actualize it, extend it, make it practicable. Hegel, in other words, had already initiated the critique of mere thought, asking his readers to shift their attention from skull-trapped ideation to thought-in-practice.

Feuerbach contends that Hegel’s emphasis on the Infinite or Unbounded is unlikely to survive this translation. Human beings are the bearers of mind, and to emphasize their mindedness is to call attention to their freedom, the fact that they can, for reasons of their own, fashion the world in an infinitely extendable list of different ways. But human beings are not only mind, and this means that the beings who incarnate unbounded mind are also limited and that our theory of creation-without-limit is going to have to be accompanied by an account of need and dependency. Hegelianism does, in fact, tend to produce theories of the God-man, in which a self-exalting humanity promotes itself to the position of Creator. Feuerbach argues in response that this putatively divine and all-making humanity is in fact rather encumbered—that its members are often hungry or vulnerable or aroused, and that they can only think and create from amidst these constraints. The philosophers’ error is to underscore at every turn the achievements of thought while saying almost nothing about my need to eat every five or six hours. Philosophy, then, is best grasped as the specious transfiguration of thinking activity, as the abstraction of thought from out of its mundane and bodily circumstance. One exercise facing the student of philosophy would be, via acts of speculative reconstruction, to restore to abstract thought its origins in practice, to make any canonical philosophical doctrine legible as a way of being in the world. That done, the next assignment would be to go ahead and dispense with philosophy, to quit asking philosophical questions, to avoid framing the problems that arise in one’s life as philosophical puzzles, and to cultivate instead a militant orientation to the stuff of this world, a non-philosophical will to concretion.

The second skepticism, meanwhile, is a forthright adaptation of the German Idea’s great political demand—the demand, that is, for institutions that we have made, that we know ourselves to have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly. The Hegelian, of course, is determined to utter this formulation not only about institutions in general, but severally about each particular thing. We demand a state / a legal system / a language / an x that we have made, that we know &c. Repetition of that kind comes easy, but the slogan is at its most challenging when it turns reflexive, plugging thought into x’s open slot, and so subjecting Geist itself to the politics of Geist: We demand a philosophy that we have made, that we &c. No sooner is this demand spoken than it will generate a misgiving, since I am likely to regard the concepts at the center of my philosophy as true or right—as discovered and not as made. The ideas that I take to be guiding my political conduct are thus rather like the Christian God and will need to be demystified in turn. We create the idea of equality (or freedom or solidarity or the commonwealth or Geist), treat it as uncreated and not of us, and then subordinate ourselves to it. The doctrine of the active, creative mind, followed consequently to its conclusion, turns on itself as thought’s last uncreated term.

Knowing about these conflicting anti-philosophies should make it possible to specify one of Marx’s more important innovations. His trick is to deploy these two skeptical positions against each other, identifying the moment of dogmatism in each and then countering it with arguments drawn from the other. To the ultra-idealist creed of the mind’s endless invention, he counterposes a doctrine of need and material constraint as chastened as any Catholic conservatism. I do not liberate myself by thinking myself liberated. But to any philosophical account of such constraints he responds by restating the precepts of geistliche creativity: Our dependencies are themselves created, and so, too, is any account of human nature that claims to comprehend human constraint once and for all.  There is no human endowment whose historical variations we can safely ignore or whose persistence we can confidently predict. Marxism comes into being not as a philosophical system and not as a new science, but as an ensemble of coordinated and mutually contemptuous skepticisms—as philosophy abandoned … and then re-abandoned for good measure.


Comments are closed.