Marx & Engels: The Critical Ideology

Posted on September 18, 2013


Much like Kant’s Groundwork, Marx & Engel’s The German Ideology is an unlikely  text to forward as the best introduction to the author(s) under review or as the most central text in their oeuvre. Reading some of the earlier chapters of the first volume of Capital, in particular, would  seem a more obvious option due to its influence and its closer proximity to the “vintage” of Marx you are probably most familiar with. However, also like our earlier choice of Groundwork,  the rationale for reading GI is much the same: (1) it emphasizes, as well if not better than any other text by Marx, the general methodology at work in his theorizing, and (2) it is the text that foregrounds most strongly Marx’s position in the genealogy of critical theory (i.e., both what he takes from earlier thinkers and what aspects of his own thinking have have had the strongest influence on subsequent work in the field). As such, we might orient our discussion of Marx around two different issues: the connection between the analysis/argument presented in GI and the legacy of Kantian philosophy as well as what “condition” (to use the language we have been deploying in the seminar up until now) Marx introduces into critical/philosophical thought on its way to becoming critical theory proper.

Marx’s work, particularly in GI, is commonly read as, on the one hand, a rejection of Hegel’s work : “flipping Hegel on his head” by inverting the priority of a number of concept in the latter’s thought (namely idea/reality, culture/nature, and universal/particular). On the other, it is also often conceived as a correction of  Hegel’s work (“putting Hegel on his feet again“), presenting an extension of his thinking radically opposed to the dominant interpretations of Hegel of the time (that of the “Young Hegelians” referenced throughout GI). A productive way to think of what Marx preserves from Hegel, however, might be in reference to the category of abstraction itself. As Hegel writes in “Who Thinks Abstractly?“, abstraction is a dangerous activity because it tempts us to embrace common experience and preconception at the expense of  concrete particularities (such as in his example of how we see a convicted murderer about to be executed as only “a murderer” and thus “efface the rest of the human essence in him”). At the same time, however, the ability to “abstract” from experience is the only way through which we can posit “universals” or “rights” that might have usage beyond the creation on a case-by-case basis. Although traditionally Hegel’s philosophy as a whole was taken to be a “return” to the kind of grand absolutist metaphysics that Kant attempted to displace, more recently Hegel is equally read as extending Kant’s gesture in this regard toward a critique of Kant himself. For our purposes, however, it might be useful to simply emphasize the “double-edged” conception of abstraction as the link uniting Kant, Hegel, and Marx and forming the anchor for, amongst other things, their relevance for later critical theory.

In this regard–and this will be a key consideration for us later in the class–we might link Kant and Marx together as the key thinker to have introduced the critique of reason into philosophy (and thus provided the groundwork for this pillar of critical theory), whereas our next two subjects–Nietzsche and Heidegger–though by no means inattentive to the critique of reason, have instead found their most consistent legacy in contemporary critical theory in the critique of language. This would provide us with yet another way of distinguishing proto-critical theory from more traditional philosophical thought.

As for the “condition” Marx introduces into critical theory–the relationship between critical theory and revolution or of the “disruption” of history–we might think about this in two ways. Some are struck by how M & E seem to suggest a determinist or explicitly causal connection between the “material conditions” of/around an individual and their consciousness or mentality; one of you cited this passage in particular:

This conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of production, starting out from the material production of life itself, and to comprehend the form of intercourse connected with this and created by this mode of production (i.e. civil society in its various stages), as the basis of all history; and to show it in its action as State, to explain all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc. etc. and trace their origins and growth from that basis; by which means, of course, the whole thing can be depicted in its totality (and therefore, too, the reciprocal action of these various sides on one another).

Although it is true that statements such as these may seem overly deterministic, it is crucial, I take it, to emphasize M & E’s own attempts at qualifications here–including the “reciprocal action” inserted parenthetically above–as well as M & E’s discussions elsewhere on the question of the transformation of consciousness in the present/future as opposed to the past (even if the “historical” part of “historical materialism” is what comes through most strongly in its presentation in GI). The former consideration is useful in thinking through the contextual burden and rhetorical power of GI. If the Young Hegelians (the primary target of the piece) were guilty of overstating the separation between thought and materiality, then Marx’s overstatement can be read as a corrective; if it is hyperbolic, then it is so in the sense that Seneca discussed hyperbole as a way to “assert the incredible in order to arrive at the credible.” As a way of rereading history, and insofar “materiality” really means “socioeconomic materiality” it allows a interpretive frame that allows us to track the “causal” role of the latter in cases in which other forces (such as the “consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc.” of the quote above) may traditionally have been given priority. A good example of this method can be found, for instance, in Engel’s The Peasant War in Germany (1850), which argued that class conflict rather than “religious conflict” was the real motivating force behind the Reformation and the 16th century Peasant War.

At the same time, however, it is also importance to emphasize the value of the statement in resetting the terrain in which (critical) philosophy will be judged. Immediately following the quotation above, M & E make the following contrast about their method:

It has not, like the idealistic view of history, in every period to look for a category, but remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice; and accordingly it comes to the conclusion that all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism, by resolution into “self-consciousness” or transformation into “apparitions,” “spectres,” “fancies,” etc. but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory. It shows that history does not end by being resolved into “self-consciousness as spirit of the spirit,” but that in it at each stage there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, an historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which, on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development, a special character. It shows that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances.

In addition the emphasis on reciprocity at the end “circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances”), this passage also highlights how the “success” of a change in consciousness can only be measured in how it proceeds to change the material conditions of the community as whole (rather than the subjective relations of the individual). In this sense, if M & E seem overly deterministic to an audience that is well-acquainted with (social) constructionist notions of identity and subjectivity, it is perhaps only because they insist the process must (be) work(ed) both ways: it is not enough to recognize the various ways that socio-economic conditions create our beliefs and values, but that we much change socio-economic conditions (and not just “our minds” about them) in order to change collective consciousness. Thus, after Marx & Engel, it is difficult for a practitioner of critical theory to ignore the fact that it is “not criticism but revolution” that is driving the force of history.


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