Muck, filth, phantoms and revolution

In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels set forth nothing less than the basis of their theory of working-class revolution.

MARX AND Engels wrote The German Ideology in 1845 and 1846, but it was only published in full in German in 1932, and wasn't translated into English until 1961.

Columnist: Todd Chretien

Todd Chretien Todd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.

Yet Marx and Engels both considered it a critical work. As Marx later wrote, "We abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing of the mice all the more willingly as we had achieved our main purpose–self clarification."

In this article, I will only consider the first 70 or so pages, as it provides a positive exposition of Marx and Engels' views at the time on history, capitalism and their theory of working-class revolution. The rest of the book is an obsessively long polemic against Max Stirner (an ultra-individualist Young Hegelian) and German True Socialists (which will be taken up in later columns).

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Life Determines Consciousness

Marx and Engels begin with a general statement about what they believe separates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their material life. (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 5. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 31)

Today, we are so radically cut free from almost any relationship with nature or other animals, and that distinction is so obviously based on all the stuff we produce, this seems like common sense. What do humans do above all else? We produce and/or we consume. You can lament that we mostly produce junk, or you can celebrate the wonders of consumer society, but either way, Marx and Engel's point really can't be dismissed.

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In this series, Todd Chretien provides an accompaniment to the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
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Next, Marx and Engels condense thousands of years of history into three pages with a breakneck review of what they call Tribal, Ancient and Feudal forms of property. Each of these stages is distinguished by specific property relations, which are, in turn, a reflection of the increasingly complex division of labor within each society. Both of these factors are related to the development of what they call "productive forces."

They move from a general statement about people "producing their means of subsistence" to an approximation of the variety of human societies. This historical rough draft points in the direction of studying change, conflict and transformation--in place of timeless ideas on the one hand, and simple empirical studies of economics and history on the other. Marx and Engels call this "materialist history" and summarize this insight as follows:

[W]e do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive...[but] from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life process, we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of his life-process. The phantoms formed in the brains of men...have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their actual world, also their thinking and the products of their thinking. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness. (CW, Vol. 5., pp. 36-37)

"Ah-hah!," you say. "I knew it. Marx and Engels are economic determinists. They deny the power of human thought. See, right here in black and white: 'life determines consciousness.'"

Okay, you got them. But not really.

Perhaps they did overstate the case by saying ideas "have no history, no development." But if you put this in the context of everything we've read up to this point, it ought to be clear enough that Marx and Engels are saying our ability to think and speak is a product of our dependence on other people for the production of food, shelter, clothing and reproduction.

Even President Obama understood this when he quite correctly said, "You didn't build that," in reference to the myth of "self-made" successful small businesses. You will remember that the Republicans made him pay for this sleight against the ideology of American entrepreneurship, and he quickly retreated. Nonetheless, life, even in America, is social. If you want to call that "determinist," then there is no helping you.

Having stressed this explanation, I will only add that, yes, I think Marx and Engels do tend to expect that certain ideas ought to arise, more or less fluidly, from certain social conditions. As Marx wrote a few years earlier in The Holy Family:

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in according with its being, it will historically be compelled to do.

Even if now, after the Theses on Feuerbach, where Marx responded to the dilemma of "Who will educate the educator?" by positing the process of revolutionary practice or praxis, he still has a tendency to expect that the ideas and practice of the working class will necessarily aim to abolish capitalism. Is this true? Even if it is true, are there potential roadblocks? I will return to these questions below.

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Borrowing from Hegel

But first, how accurate is their rough sketch of human history up to this point? Keep in mind that Darwin's Origins of Species was not published until 1859, and anthropology did not yet exist as a discipline. Given these limits, how could Marx develop such a sweeping narrative of human development?

Think back to The Holy Family and Marx's Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. There, Marx critiqued Hegel's dialectical concept of historical change driven by great thought systems--starting out from Consciousness, only to be overcome by Self-Consciousness and then Reason, Spirit and Religion in turn, before finally arriving at Absolute Knowledge (as Hegel wrote in The Phenomenology of Spirit).

However, Marx did take over part of Hegel's schema, lock, stock and barrel, and began to fill it in with new, shall we say, material as best he could from the real historical and economic knowledge he had at his disposal. Hegel's Modes of Thought are replaced by Modes of Production: Tribal, Ancient, Feudal, Capitalist, Communist. These distinctive arrangements of the productive, cultural, sexual and technological moments give rise to new ways of thinking.

It's a daring vision, and we shall see in future columns how well it stands up to the test of better, more accurate, empirical knowledge. Spoiler alert: It stands up pretty well indeed, though not without problems.

For instance, Marx and Engels argue that growing forces of production, new techniques and technologies, drive historical developments forward, yet they don't explain why this should be the case. Their first guess is that it has something to do with the "natural division of labor in the family," which they describe as a kind of "latent slavery" of the wife by the husband.

There are more than a couple problems with this notion. First, why should there be any inequality, never mind slavery, between men and women? And if, at some point in human development, inequality did arise, why did it? Doesn't calling it "natural" negate the point that Marx and Engels are making about such developments being rooted in history?

At any rate, it should be noted that, far from downplaying the role of women's oppression in the rise of exploitation, Marx and Engels here integrate an understanding of sexism as one of its original sources.

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The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

Marx and Engels are on firmer ground tracing the rise of capitalism in Europe, although the historical sections are greatly compressed into a few pages, and they would revise some of this in later work. This process (which is hotly contested among Marxist scholars) received a tremendous shot in the arm with the discovery of the New World and the opening of trade routes to the East Indies. By 1800, the phase of machine manufacture, otherwise known as the Industrial Revolution, took off in England. At this point, as Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology:

[U]niversal competition...forced all individuals to strain their energy to the utmost. It destroyed as far as possible ideology, religion, morality, etc. And, where it could not do this, made them into a palpable lie. It produced world history for first time, in so far as it made all civilized nations and every individual member of them dependent for the satisfaction of their wants on the whole world, thus destroying the former natural exclusiveness of separate nations. (CW, Vol. 5., p. 73)

Here, Marx and Engels want to stress the wrenching transformations wrought by capital. Next to the development of the world market, they argue, the Roman Empire was a lethargic and provincial form. "Universal competition" binds the entire planet together under one factory bell, wringing all specificity, all peculiarity out of individuals and whole countries alike.

So having made their general point that "life determines consciousness," then developing the approximate stages of human history, they now seek to examine in detail just how radically different all previous societies were from 19th century capitalism. If they paint a terrifying picture of colonialism, exploitation and dispossession (although they do not include New World African slavery), they also ask the question: What sorts of social formations and ideas will arise out of this whirlwind?

How accurate are Marx and Engels on the details here? As I mentioned, there is a long-running debate on the specific mechanisms on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I will leave those aside for now and simply point out that if, as noted above, they tended to collapse the complexities of the relationship between what individual proletarians think and what the proletariat is, here, Marx and Engels paint a one-sided economic description of the world that must be treated carefully. They rightly grasp capitalism's general trends (centralization, competition, world trade, colonialism, etc.), but keep in mind that the vast majority of the world's population still lived in rural zones, toiling on the land.

Marx and Engels saw what was coming more clearly than anyone, but that very clarity sometimes blinded them to the economic reality as it existed in the moment.

Moreover, what are we to make of their assertion that "all ideology, religion, morality" were destroyed by the market? This is just not true. They recognize the dangers of overstating their case themselves when they write in the very next line that, if those ideologies do survive, then they must be "made into a palpable lie." But aren't all ideologies lies to begin with? Isn't this the point of writing The German Ideology?

My opinion is that they never quite nail this down. If they are right to point out that economic transformation does squeeze the life out of certain ideas (notions of feudal chivalry and noblesse oblige and the like), then other ideologies take their place, mutating into the most bizarre species.

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Theory of Communist Revolution: Why and How

One of the chief evils of this new capitalist form of social organization is what Marx and Engels call "estrangement" or "the fixation of social activity." This may sound familiar, as Marx discussed this phenomenon under the name of "alienation" in the Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844. Finely tuned by the rise of industrial capitalism, this division of labor has severe consequences for individuals, as Marx and Engels explain:

For as soon as the division of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon them and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; whereas in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic. (CW Vol. 5, p. 47)

This is the first mention of communism in the book, and it's a sort of strange way to introduce it. However, by starting here, it is clear that Marx and Engels' advocacy of communism extends beyond a simple (if only it were simple!) egalitarian distribution of wealth. That is only a precondition for the real goal of communism, which is the freedom for individuals to escape the prison house of the division of labor.

Marx and Engels next move on from this "why" to the "how" of abolishing capitalism. This theory is scattered over three subsections in various chapters. For the sake of clarity, I will treat it as a whole here. Having identified, way back in 1843, the need for a revolutionary "universal class," Marx and Engels now hone in and argue that capitalism:

can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. In order to become an "unendurable" power, i.e., a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity "propertyless," and moreover in contradiction to an existing world of wealth and culture; both these premises presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it, privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored. (CW Vol. 5, pp. 48-49)

So not only must "the great mass of humanity" be forced to work for the capitalists in order to create a "universal class" with sufficient power to take them on, but that class must have its nose rubbed in it. It must be excluded from the "existing world of wealth culture" so that it can see the potential for redistribution.

But just as importantly, this potential must be empirically real--that is, capitalism must not only enslave everyone, it must also employ sufficiently productive technology so that if the workers make a revolution and redistribute the wealth, there will be plenty to go around, eliminating poverty and laying the basis for an assault on the fixed division of labor. If these practical premises don't exist, then the revolution will fail (too few workers), or it will win and we will merely evenly distribute "privation, want" (too few means of production). Capitalism creates a "sweet spot" where revolution is both possible and viable.

Following this perspective, Marx and Engels add three curious sentences:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the now existing premise. (CW Vol. 5, p. 49)

In one sense, these sentences are merely emphasizing their exacerbation with the Young Hegalians' endless philosophizing (as well as the True Socialists' utopian schemas). But there seems to be something more here. After all, didn't they just finish defining communism as a society which liberates us from the division of labor? Isn't that an ideal? Or do they mean that any action taken by workers--any "real movement"--is "communism?"

Marx did infer that when he wrote, in the context of the Silesian weavers' strike of 1844, that "however limited an industrial revolt may be, it contains within itself a universal soul." But this seems to be a serious overstatement of the consciousness which arises from most struggles under capitalism. So can we simply chalk this up to Marx and Engels' limited personal experience in actual working class struggles?

I think it is tempting to answer the question that way and simply say that they would soon gain more than their share of practical experience in the 1848 revolution. Yet there is a deeper point here that's worth considering.

There is the constant danger of making even the most revolutionary point of view into a fixed belief which no longer corresponds to "the present state of things." No matter how good an idea sounds, if you cannot connect the movement you aim to build to a "now existing premise"--that is, real social conditions--then you are divorcing ideas (even righteous ones) from the social forces (even if they are only potential) to realize them. This is a frustrating piece of advice from Marx and Engels, but one well worth remembering.

Having said this, it is clear that Marx and Engels certainly expect that workers will soon create this real movement to fight for communism. Why do they believe workers will do this? Marx and Engels give two sorts of answers. The first answer is a humanist one, emphasizing the moral rejection of injustice and inequality by workers whose "conditions of life" are "forced upon them." (CW Vol. 5, p. 79)

The second answer is a sociological and structural one:

Only the proletarians of the present day, who are completely shut off from all self-activity, are in a position to achieve a complete and no longer restricted self-activity, which consists in the appropriation of a totality of productive forces and in the development of a totality of capacities entailed by this. All earlier revolutionary appropriations were restricted...Modern universal intercourse cannot be controlled by individuals, unless it is controlled by all...It can only be effected through union. (CW Vol. 5, pp. 87-88)

Thus, workers will recognize that there is no way out for them, and the logic of their position will make it clear that they cannot escape their conditions as individuals--with rare exceptions. Workers suffer a radically alienated position in the face of the "totality of productive forces," leading them to solve the problem by collective action, "effected through union." This is the essence of Marx and Engel's expectation for the growth of working-class consciousness into anti-capitalist consciousness.

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The Ruling Ideas

It goes without saying that the bosses don't sit idly by while this is taking place. As Marx and Engels point out:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force...The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations. (CW Vol. 5, p. 59)

In an age dominated by corporate media, this seems almost silly to repeat. But it's worse than it might appear at first. If Fox News were the only problem, I'd bet on the proletariat against Bill O'Reilly any day. Unfortunately, capitalist ideology penetrates much more deeply because those ideas (individualism, self-help, family values, work hard to get ahead, job competition, etc.) really do express "the dominant material relations." For instance, if it were simply a "palpable lie" that there are a limited number of good-paying jobs that workers are forced to compete for, then one of the most tenacious factors in anti-immigrant racism would peel away.

Capitalists are smart. They don't generally blame job losses on obscure punk bands. Well, Russia's Vladimir Putin does, but no one in the U.S. would buy it. Instead, the bosses blame immigration from Mexico. This seems more plausible because there really is competition over jobs (although, generally speaking, not because of immigration), and this competition is a key feature of the "dominant material features" of capitalist society.

This is why liberal politicians and media outlets are committed to "comprehensive" immigration reform--i.e., the control and monitoring of immigrant labor. They accept the basic "dominant material relations" and adjust their ideas to fit within the limits set forth by capital.

How does this square with what Marx and Engels said before about the very structure of capitalism leading workers to see its oppressive structures? Here, they are making the opposite point--that is, the very structures of capitalism provide a framework for the acceptance of the ruling ideology.

So what happened to "life determines consciousness"? Remember the Theses on Feuerbach--even the educator must be educated. This can only take place in the context of revolutionary struggle--praxis, as Marx and Engels go on to explain:

For the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and becomes fitted to found society anew. (CW, Vol. 5, pp. 52-53)

I think this is the most important passage in any of Marx and Engels' writings. It is the heart of their theory of communist revolution.

It's a complicated dance step to master, but the ABCs are easy enough to grasp. The capitalist ruling class, even in Marx's time and far more so today, is fantastically powerful on all fronts. Any notion of taking them by surprise, or a small group confronting them for power, is a fantasy. Only the "vast majority of humanity," the working class, has the potential social power to challenge them, not only because of our numbers, but because we are the source of all capitalist profits.

But we are subject to and divided by the "muck of ages." So the question is: How can an oppressed class which is so messed up possibly make a revolution. No doubt you have heard this objection before. Workers are too racist, too stupid, too nationalistic, too obsessed with consumer society to make a revolution. Well, here is Marx and Engels' answer. Yes, all those things are true, to a greater or lesser extent--which is precisely why only a revolution can rid workers of all (or at least enough) of that so they can see their potential power.

This grand vision inspired Marx and Engels for decades to come, and they never retreated from this position. On the last page of this section, they scribbled down the following fragment of thought: "The role of repression with regard to the state, law, morality, etc." Having disposed of the German ideologists at great length, Marx and Engels now sought answers to these questions, with regard to practical political organizing--including that heavily loaded "etc."

This will be the subject of my next columns. Marx would never again seek to publish critiques of German philosophers, and Engels would only return to consider Feuerbach at length some 40 years later. Instead, Marx wrote his next book in French in order to try to win a hearing in the most radical workers movement of the day.

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The Poverty of Philosophy took aim at popular French anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon's economic and political ideas. Marx spends most of the book berating Proudhon for misunderstanding Hegel, but I will concentrate on Chapter Two, Section 2 and Section 5 in order to show why he became so hostile to Proudhon's version of anarchism.