Praxis makes perfect

March 26, 2013

In a short piece published after his death, Marx pointed to the importance of theory and action, and how they are intertwined in the process of struggle.

"Philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

THIS FAMOUS quote comes from a three-page outline Karl Marx wrote for himself in 1845 called Theses on Feuerbach. (Marx Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5, pp. 3-5). This quote is thesis XI. It was only published 43 years later as an appendix to a set of writings edited by his friend Frederick Engels.

Many people take Marx to mean that theory is less important than action. I can't count the number of times I have heard a certain sort of activist exclaim, "Enough! No more talk, it's time for action!" By this logic, you are guilty of wasting your time right now by reading this when you should be out in the streets doing something!!! (Normally, multiple exclamation points accompany outbursts like this.) At least you're not as guilty as I am for taking the time to write this article in the first place.

It is true that by the time Marx wrote these words, he was well and truly sick of many of his philosopher friends-turned-armchair-critics. Yet, if we leave it there, it is hard to explain why he and his pal Engels spent so much time immersed in study.

Columnist: 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.

The Theses on Feuerbach help answer this question. They are both a continuation of Marx and Engels' previously-held ideas and something new, a solution to one of the lingering contradictions in those works.

As I noted in my last column on Engels' book, The Condition of the English Working Class , both he and Marx tended to see the working class as the emotional and physical "heart" of the revolution, while the (radical) philosophers would provide the "brain." A starkly elitist position.

This reflected an ongoing debate about the origins of human knowledge and historical change, one that has continued to this day. If you have ever had a discussion with someone who says "we won't have any mass movements until we have a new Martin Luther King or Elizabeth Gurley Flynn," you are familiar with this dilemma. In the Theses, for the first time, Marx proposes an entirely new way to think about this problem.

Keep in mind that Marx wrote these notes, as was his habit, as a sort of intellectual condensation and outline. This can sometimes make it difficult to separate out what Marx is merely paraphrasing for his own purposes, critiques he is making of those paraphrases and, finally, his own independent ideas. These theses were never intended for publication, and we don't even know how important Marx thought they were. Did he paste them on the wall and commit them to memory? Or were they a quick summary that he shoved in the drawer?

It is true that many years later Engels wrote that:

[W]hen, in the spring of 1845, we met again in Brussels, Marx had already fully developed his materialist theory of history...this discovery, which revolutionized the science of history, and which, as we've seen, is essentially the work of Marx--a discovery which I can claim for myself only a very small share--was...of immediate importance for the workers movement... (CW, Vol. 26, p. 318)

He was being characteristically modest in giving Marx all the credit and perhaps a bit grandiose to proclaim their theory's "immediate importance for the workers movement."

Nonetheless, in order to more clearly explain what Engels' thought was so innovative, I will rearrange the order of these theses, combining them into four groups. Why rearrange the order? Well, Marx might not like to hear this, but I think several of his theses are a bit repetitive. You are free to read them in the order that Marx wrote them, but I hope my presentation will ease the way.

BUT FIRST, who was Ludwig Feuerbach? He's not exactly a household name these days. Right up until the winter or spring of 1845, he was Marx's favorite philosopher, whom Marx had hoped would collaborate with him on launching a new radical magazine.

As I wrote in a previous columns, Marx had largely sided with Feuerbach against those young Hegelians, like Bruno Bauer , whom they both considered to have become obsessed with increasingly obscure philosophical terminology and who disparaged the actions of common people. (You might have met a few of these types along the way.)

Feuerbach argued that philosophers and radicals must turn squarely to a study of humanity's "species-being," our unique attribute of consciousness that sets us apart from other animals. He proposed a humanistic philosophy, designed to make people realize that the qualities that they assigned to god or spirit were really just the best of humanity. God was a human creation, and not the other way around. So far so good for Marx.

Here is a passage from Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, which I think gives a good idea of his progressive humanism, an attempt to make Christianity into a universal doctrine by detaching the idea of love from the limits of one religion:

Man is to be loved for man's sake. Man is an object of love because he is an end in himself, because he is a rational and loving being. This is the law of the species, the law of the intelligence...Love is the subjective reality of the species, as reason is its objective reality. In love, in reason, the need of an intermediate person disappears. Christ is nothing but an image, under which the unity of the species has impressed itself on the popular consciousness. Christ loved men: he wished to bless and unite them all without distinction of sex, race, rank or nationality.

Marx grew increasingly uncomfortable with this talk of love as the solution to capitalism.

SO, WITH no further ado, here are the eleven Theses on Feuerbach in the four Groups referred to above.

Group 1: Marx explains Feuerbach's method and critiques his ahistorical humanism

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

VI. Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.

In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently obliged:

1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.
-- 2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as "genus," as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals in a natural way.

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

In IV, Marx argues that Feuerbach simply asserts, even if he is right to do so, that religion is a "self alienation" of humanity, and Marx criticizes him for seeing his job as simply waking people up to the idea that God was invented by people, and not the other way around. Marx thinks this is insufficient and argues that the specific, historical human circumstances (the changing forms of families, for instance) that gave rise to religious ideas must be studied and, in turn, "revolutionized in practice."

In VI, Marx agrees with Feuerbach about resolving "the religious essence into the human essence," but then asks, what is this "human essence?" Is it something that "naturally" links all the "single individuals" in the world into one amorphous blob?

No, says Marx, "in its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations." Here are some examples of this "ensemble": master and slave, worker and boss, colonizer and colonized, and many more based on race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc. And don't forget, all of this is constantly changing over time.

In place of this complexity, Feuerbach merely ascribes to billions of atomized individuals, without any reference to their specific social position, an "essence," which supposedly unites them. As we saw from The Essence of Christianity quote mentioned before, his unifying principle is love.

Marx disagrees so intently with this that he says so again in VII. See? Repetitive, right?

Group 2: Marx counterposes Feuerbach's contemplation to revolutionary practice

I. The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism--that of Feuerbach included--is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism--which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence, in The Essence of Christianity, he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance. Hence he does not grasp the significance of "revolutionary," of "practical-critical," activity.

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

III. The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself must be educated. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

If in Group 1, Marx criticizes Feuerbach for failing to analyze concrete social conditions, in Group 2, he discusses the implications of this approach when it comes to how to change the world.

In I, Marx argues against Feuerbach's strict separation between mental (subjective) processes and external (objective) circumstances. What we do, "sensuous human activity, practice" (here sensuous is referring to our senses, don't confuse this with sensual), for Feuerbach, is merely conceived of as an object. The real action goes on in our brains.

You might have caught this in the quote from The Essence of Christianity where Feuerbach says "Love is the subjective reality of the species, as reason is its objective reality." He is trying to find a way out of the object/subject divide, but falls back on love versus intelligence or emotion versus intellect or heart versus head. Sound familiar?

Thus, Feuerbach is stuck in a bind. He wants humans to be the center of his philosophy, but sees most of what we do as "external." It was the great idealists, Hegel chief among them with his Absolute Spirit moving through time, who understood action, but only in an abstract and ideal sense.

Marx says we should see "human activity itself as objective activity." Feuerbach asserts that we should understand the "theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude," so he disparages social-economic activity, which Marx refers to as "dirty-Jewish form of appearance."

Here, Marx is linking Feuerbach's assessment of the Jewish god as supposedly egoistic--in theological terms--with the stereotypical association of the Jewish community to commerce. Thus, Feuebach's inability to conceive of human activity, economic or otherwise, itself--which simultaneously requires mental and manual activity--blinded him to what Marx calls "revolutionary" or "practical–critical" activity.

Here, Marx is not using the word "revolutionary" only in its political sense, but in a broader way that points to the impact of human cooperation on nature and on the "ensemble of social relations." (It should be said in Feuerbach's defense that the disparaging reference to Judiasm is Marx's phrase, not Feuerbach's. Marx was most likely using this phrase ironically by this stage. See my commentary on Marx's On the Jewish Question .)

In V, Marx essentially repeats this argument in condensed form before unveiling in III the beating heart of the new theory that Engels was so excited about. Marx's novel observation that "the educator must be himself educated" is the key for his whole new conception of epistemology (the study of where ideas come from) and social change.

Now, in place of gods or ideals or philosophers or heroes moving history through the force of their will, not only social development, but even knowledge, must flow from a dialectical process which integrates both intellectual and social life, the "coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing," or what he calls "revolutionary practice."

If you've ever heard the terms praxis, this is what it's all about. Why praxis and not just "revolutionary practice?" As near as I can tell there are at least two reasons. First, praxis means "practice" in German and, in the same way certain people like to tell you that they are reading Das Kapital instead of just saying they are reading Capital, it sounds cooler to say "praxis." (I have found that, generally speaking, people who say they are reading Das Kapital neither speak German nor are reading Capital.)

Second, when the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned by the fascists, he used the term "philosophy of praxis" as a substitute for "Marxism" to get it past the prison censors and the phrase kind of stuck.

At any rate, Marx makes it very clear that this praxis does not mean a simple rejection of intellectual activity, far from it. "Revolutionary action" conceives of theory and practice as a continuous process. It is not that they are two sides of the same coin, a metaphor which still implies dualism, even if there is close relationship. Marx is not arguing first theory, then practice, nor is he arguing first practice, then theory.

They constitute a simultaneous, interpenetrated, mixed-up phenomena which has to be thought of as two aspects of one whole, a totality, in continuous motion. There is no educator who is not simultaneously being educated and no one who is being educated who is not simultaneously an educator.

Group 3. Marx returns to a critique of Bruno Bauer and now includes Feuerbach

II. The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth--i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

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

This is partly a restatement of comments that Marx had made in The Holy Family in his attack on Bruno Bauer, referenced above, and also a repetition of the point he made in Group 2 with respect to his theory of where knowledge comes from (epistemology).

Philosophers, says Marx, failed to pay close enough attention to the real material world, and critically, how it changes over time. Therefore, they were content to consider abstract concepts (love, justice, self, being, god, etc.) and this led them all to mysticism and the search for the one "true" ideal that could give meaning to all others.

Marx argues that this is exactly what happened to Hegel when he explained all of human history as the mere process of the Absolute Spirit becoming aware of itself over time, leaving behind positive residues in the form of civilizations and their multifarious social, economic and political forms.

But if before he criticized Hegel and his extreme idealism, Marx now argues that even a materialist (the "doctrine of changing circumstances" to explain changes in human behavior) such as Feuerbach can fall into this trap if abstract concepts--"love" in Feuerbach's case--are simply counterposed to society, instead of attempting to understand ideas as arising out of historical, temporary, changing circumstances.

For instance, when a slave and a slave-owner use the word "love," do they really mean the same thing? Is there anything in common between the notion of "justice" held by the Nazis and by the Warsaw Ghetto resisters? No, knowledge must arise, argues Marx, from social context.

Group 4. Marx argues that the point of revolutionary practice is the comprehension of existing (capitalist) society and its overthrow

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

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

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

Theses IX and X seem to make almost no sense, until we realize that what Marx means by "civil society" is the liberal notion of citizenship and democracy which do not take into account the realities of concrete, historically specific "human society," in fact, capitalist society, divided as it is by class. This is the point he was getting at in VI, but he didn't use the terms "civil" or "human" society.

He criticizes Feuerbach throughout for failing to analyze specific class societies and how they changed over time. IX and X are his promise to do just that at length in his upcoming work. Hold on to your hats.

If I'm right and you've followed all this, we can now, finally, rewrite Marx's famous thesis XI as follows:

Philosophers have not studied how and why human history changes over time; instead they have mistaken the society they happen to have been born into as being essentially similar to all human history, from the Garden of Eden to Disneyland; they have merely interpreted various abstract and timeless notions, supposedly having to do with humanity's eternal soul or being. The point is to study the really-existing class society in which you live by participating in a struggle to change it; only by integrating intellectual and social-political action into a new form of revolutionary practice (praxis) can the educator (the masses themselves) be educated (by their own thought-action-thought process or, alternatively, their own action-thought-action process) in order gain the theoretical knowledge necessary to do win that practical struggle.

That's a mouthful, so now you see why people normally leave aside the first ten theses and skip right to the end! But Marx never makes it easy for you. He believed that thinking was just as hard as doing and, vice versa, and that if you (and millions of your friends) want to be an effective revolutionary educator/educated, you have to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time.

What's missing from all this? Just three little things: history, the working class and communism.

We'll get to those next time in The German Ideology, Vol. 1, Preface and Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks (I-IV). It's about 65 pages all together.

Further Reading

From the archives