Part 17 of Prisoners of the Real
Born as Europe moved from a time of crowded change into a period of lethargy, descended from Rabbis, and abandoning his Protestant upbringing early in life, Karl Marx was a student during a time of intense intellectual development in Germany. The neo-Hegelian group he joined, led by Ludwig Feuerback, had rejected Hegel's notion of providence behind the cosmic process. Although Marx managed to avoid rational skepticism, he concluded, under Feuerback's influence, that religion, like all products of the mind, was derived from material conditions, and that these conditions determined the life of the community. In The German Ideology, he wrote:
"The phantoms formed in the human brain are also necessarily sublimates of their material life-processes, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology, and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development….Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life."
After a year of frustrating work as a journalist in Cologne, which ended in his censorship by the Prussian government, Marx moved to Paris – to socialism, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Engels. But under Prussian prodding, Paris also became unfriendly after two years. Marx next moved to Brussels, and it was there that the "communist league" was born in 1847. The vision described in The Communist Manifesto was a classless society in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange were owned by the community, and from which the State had disappeared:
"If the proletariat during its contact with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
"In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."
But the highway to the abolition of capitalism, said Marx and Engels, has an extended detour known as the dictatorship of the proletariat, sometimes described as state socialism or, when the means of production are administered for the community by the state, state capitalism. Critics of Marxism have long argued that the State's ultimate disappearance and the birth of the communal association were never more than mythology; the reality of communism, they say, is illustrated best by Russia from Lenin to Gorbachev.
Marx, of course, didn't have the benefit of hindsight. And although he felt strongly that the philosopher should be an agent of change, he was less concerned about the potential dangers of a communist State than the process of dialectical materialism. Retaining Hegelian concepts, he rejected Idealist philosophy and claimed that his dialectical method was not only different than Hegel's but its direct opposite:
"To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e. the process of thinking, which under the name of 'the Idea,' he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of 'the Idea.' With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought."
Thus, Marx stripped dialectic of its remaining mystical form, making the material world the ultimate reality. For Hegel, the Absolute contained both mind and nature. Marx applied the idea solely to the material world,. Mind was merely a by-product. In his essentially scientific philosophy, the material world was the only relevant matter.
Nevertheless, Marx did oppose the older materialists who suggested that sensations from the external world provide immediate knowledge. Perception of the environment, he argued, was only part of the process of acting upon it. Knowledge was bound up with action; together they created Praxis. Only through practice could the truth of theory be ascertained:
"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, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.... Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice."
Marx assumed that sensations give us accurate copies of external reality, "mirror reflections of things." Once again skeptical observation and an orientation toward mastery of nature are prescribed as appropriate corollaries to the search for knowledge, which now took on the character of a revolutionary doctrine.
Marxism had several elements: dialectical philosophy, with its laws of transformation, unity of opposites and negation of the negation; the system of political economy, including the labor theory of value; and the theory of the State and revolution. The cornerstone of Marx' philosophical system was his theory of value: that labor alone creates it. Competition, he wrote, forces capitalists to accumulate private property, and to use technology to produce more goods. But an increase in the proportion of constant to variable capital reduces profits, and the number of capitalists decreases under competition as "one capitalist always kills many."
Weaker capitalists are progressively driven into the ranks of the wage-earners; the "misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation" of workers at capitalist hands escalates as more are driven into the industrial reserve army, where they must work for lower wages: "The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capital packaging. This packaging is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated."
According to Marx, the combination of workers in a "cooperative form of labor-process" for their own protection will eventually create a force to destroy the capitalist system, strained to the limit largely through the replacement of humans by machines. Nevertheless, he favored increases in production tied to technological improvements, what he called "conscious technical application of science," and had no sympathy for inefficiency. Changes in the mode of production were for him the central determinants of social change, a force he assumed to be beyond human control. The value of humanity was therefore the net effect of its labor upon the economic system, an unfortunate capitulation to practice and betrayal of ongoing praxis. Since cultural change relied only on outer factors, a denigration of subjective life was clearly implied. The individual was the object and victim of external forces and institutions that could only be affected by "objective" experience and labor.
Materialism and dialectics compelled Marxists to attack idealist philosophy, demeaning its non-scientific basis, its so-called roots in ignorance, and its relation to religion, which he defined as mere quackery. Knowledge of the world, he was certain, isn’t conditioned by the senses, but rather is a jigsaw puzzle with a core of absolute truth that becomes more visible as knowledge increases. A crucial assumption of classic Marxism and its later variations was ultimate control by external "productive forces," leading to productive relations between human beings within an efficient and finally cooperative society.
In a classless society, mechanisms that have increased misery will eventually serve humanity. In relying on the destruction of past institutions to create a virtuous world, Marx also embraced the principle of "improvement through movement."
In the final years of the 19th century, unexamined faith in the promise of technology became a common theme. Scientific discovery was transforming the natural world into a machine-based environment. Scientific management basically restated renaissance rationalism, an old idea re-tailored for the new managers of the western world. Humanity was becoming the servant of forces it had unleashed.
Ironically, Karl Marx added his voice to this unfolding thesis. He assured the world that a technical cure could be applied to the spreading disease of mechanism.
Next: Conditional Ascension & Factual Fetishism
To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey
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