What do ideas do?

October 24, 2012

Marx and Engels used their critique of an obscure German theologian to help them work out their theory of socialist revolution and conception of the truth.

THE GREAT scholar David McClellan politely calls The Holy Family, Marx and Engels' first published book, "baroque." I would call it just plain weird.

Marx and Engels had met back in Germany briefly in 1842, but when Engels came to Paris in August 1844, the two met at the Café de la Régance and became BFFs. As Engels put it, "[O]ur complete theoretical agreement in all fields became obvious and our joint work dates from that time."

Engels was back from 21 months in Manchester, England, where he worked at his father's textile firm as a manager. There, he had immersed himself in the Chartist and socialist working-class movements.

As I pointed out in my last column, Marx had recently lauded the first major strike in Germany, that of the Silesian textile workers. He praised these German proletarians as "the soldiers of socialism," whose rebellion contained a "universal soul" striving towards social revolution. Based on their mutual sense of impending workers revolution, the two friends naturally agreed to write a book that...wait for it...attacked an obscure German theologian.

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.

Maybe all that Parisian wine had gone to their heads?

In Engels' defense, he scratched out his 15 pages of what was supposed to be a short pamphlet in a few days, mercilessly ridiculing Bruno Bauer, Marx's one-time mentor, and Bauer's supposedly ultra-radical school of "Critical Criticism." Engels accuses Bauer of adopting an elitist point of view whereby ideas alone would light the way to a better world in place of the everyday struggles of "the mass."

Although Bauer and his associates claim that religion is the root of all evil, Engels mockingly compares them to the Christian Church itself, writing, "Critical Criticism...so loved the mass that it sent its only begotten son, that all who believe him may not be lost but may have critical life." (p. 9, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 4. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975)

Some of this is funny, if you have a very particular sense of humor, but after the first couple of pages, you get the point. But then Marx takes up the pen and writes another 185 pages! The bulk of this outpouring leads to the conclusion that Marx' s publisher did not employ an editor.

SO WHAT are Marx's main points?

First, Marx outlines his theory of working-class revolution; second, he develops his understanding of how we judge truth and knowledge (what is called epistemology in philosophical circles); and third, he begins to sketch his views of how ideas and social conditions combine to make history.

Marx starts off Chapter Four by defending the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon against Edgar Bauer (Bruno's brother), who wrote, "The fact of misery, of poverty, makes Proudhon one-sided in his considerations; he sees in it a contradiction to equality and justice; it provides him with a weapon. Hence, this fact becomes for him absolute and justified, whereas the fact of property becomes unjustified."

In other words, according to Bauer, Proudhon was wrong to assert that private property had to be abolished. "Criticism, on the other hand," writes Bauer, "joins the two facts, poverty and property, in a single unity." (p. 33-34, CW, Vol. 4)

Marx next hoists the Critical Critics on their own Hegelian sword. Where they emphasize the unity of wealth and poverty (in the name of totality), Marx emphasizes contradiction, struggle, antagonism--what he had previously called the dialectic of negativity: "Proletariat and wealth are opposites; as such they form a single whole. They are both creations of the world of private property. The question is exactly what place each occupies in the antithesis. It is not sufficient to declare them two sides of a single whole." (pp. 35-36, CW, Vol. 4)

If in Hegel the motor force of these contradictions was merely a working out, an externalization and an objectification of (what Hegel called positivity) Absolute Spirit or God's self-awareness, then for Marx, it was the concrete economic development of private property and the antagonistic classes it created driving the process:

Indeed, private property drives itself and its economic movement towards its own disillusion...The proletariat executes the sentence that private property pronounces on itself by producing the proletariat...When the proletariat is victorious, it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then the proletariat disappears as well as the opposite which determines it, private property. (p. 36, CW, Vol. 4)

If the proletariat can defeat the private property owners, then not only will it abolish the ruling class, but at the same time, it will have to abolish poverty and even wage labor itself by organizing a society based on communal (non-exploited) labor. This is what happens when a class with "radical chains" comes to power.

But this raises two questions: First, why will the proletariat struggle? And second, why won't the owners of private property reform the system themselves?

Marx answers the first question with a few sentences that summarize his whole theory of socialist revolution. It is worth reading them over a couple times:

Since in the fully formed proletariat the abstraction [that is, the annihilation--TC] of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need--the practical expression of necessity--is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself.

But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. (p. 37, CW, Vol. 4)

In other words, the social conditions in which the working class finds itself so directly contradict our human nature (or our "species-being," the label Marx uses in the Manuscripts of 1844) that people in that situation will naturally revolt, of "necessity," against those conditions.

Of course, poverty is an obvious motivating factor to hate the society you've been born into, but if capitalism as a whole is so destructive of humanity, why don't the capitalists themselves oppose it, at least after they realize what it is doing to the planet? Don't they need an ozone layer as much as the workers?

This is a very common question among political people today. For instance, many liberal people who support President Obama hope that at least some people in the ruling class will recognize the destructive tendencies within the system and switch sides.

Once in a very great while, this may happen, but as a general rule, the rich do what they can to stay rich, even at the expense of the planet, horrifying wars and the deadening of the human spirit. So are they just as much victims of capitalism as the people they exploit? Marx gives a very interesting "yes and no" answer:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present [suffer--TC] the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence...an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature. (p. 36, CW, Vol. 4)

The rich may be alienated, may even be depressed at times, but as a rule, they compensate themselves with a semblance of human nature, based on their own power over society as a whole. Yes, money can buy you love! Especially--and this is crucial--because all that money buys you political power, a bit of control and the freedom to do what you want, at least part of the time, and in that freedom, the rich can recover a "semblance of a human existence." And they fear losing this most of all.

So the rich not only feel threatened by working-class struggle because they may have to give up their money and power, they also mistake their own stunted humanity for the "universal soul" intrinsic to the proletariat and, therefore, honestly (at least as honestly as scoundrels are able) believe they are defending humanity itself by defending their own narrow privileges.

NOW SOME of these passages sound as if Marx is expecting that this will be automatic. In fact, he tends to treat the proletariat almost as a philosophical category:

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...There is no need to explain here that a large part of the French and English proletariat is already conscious of its historic task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity. (p. 37, CW, Vol. 4)

There are many things to say about a passage like this. First, it presents an incredible vision of an impending revolution and links that vision to the power of a social class that includes millions of people, as opposed to the theoretical or intellectual labor of a few isolated philosophers. As such, it is radically democratic.

At the same time, Marx does seem to adopt a deterministic attitude here--and I think it's wrong to simply dismiss Marx's emphasis on historical necessity, the question of the proletariat's being and what it will "historically be compelled to do" as rhetorical flourishes.

Rather, at this stage in his life, Marx knows relatively little about the actual history of working-class struggle. He sees as his main audience, not the working class of France or Germany or England, but a small handful of radical intellectuals grouped around his former colleagues in the Young Hegelian movement.

And if his reliance on philosophical categories (being is a loaded term in the Hegelian vernacular; it is the title of Chapter One of the Science of Logic) provided a strength whereby Marx could imagine dramatic social developments, that reliance also tended to telescope the complexity of those social developments in his mind.

This raises an interesting question of consciousness. In the above-cited passage, Marx emphasizes the fact that French and English workers are discussing ideas and "working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity."

In other words, it is clear that the actions and ideas of individual workers and groups of workers play a very large role in the struggle. But at the same time, if it does not matter "what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim," then it's not really clear if all of that argument and effort is needed, since the very being of the proletariat will inevitably force it to come to those conclusions anyway.

ALTHOUGH HE never fully resolves the question of how consciousness is produced, Marx does challenge the Critical Critics' idealist conception of human knowledge in Chapter Six in an extended critique of Bauer's notion of truth:

For Herr Bauer, as for Hegel, truth is an automaton that proves itself. Man must follow it. As in Hegel, the result of real development is nothing but the truth proven, i.e., brought to consciousness...Just as, according to the earlier teleologists, plants exist to be eaten by animals, and animals to be eaten by man, history exists in order to serve as the act of consumption of theoretical eating--proving. Man exists so that history may exist, and history exists so that the proof of truths exist." (p. 79, CW, Vol. 4)

Marx rejects what is called teleological thinking--that is, the idea that the existence of some thing, some idea or some social class can be explained by something that is supposedly supposed to happen in the future, or based on some abstract explanation of its purpose. An example of this would be if you ask why the Earth 93 million miles from the Sun, and your answer is: so that life can exist here. This would be a teleological argument.

So Marx is accusing the Critical Critics and Hegel himself of engaging in this sort of argument when they explain human history by reference to the self-consciousness of some abstract spiritual or intellectual force. For example, for Hegel, why did the Roman Empire exist? So that the Absolute Spirit could become aware of the antagonism between master and slave. And why, for the Critical Critics, is there wealth and poverty? So that Bruno Bauer and his Holy Family of philosophers can contemplate it.

In place of this purely speculative search for the truth, Marx explains that abstract knowledge must not be counterposed to society. Rather, it must be a product of that society:

All communist and socialist writers proceeded from the observation that, on the one hand, even the most favorably brilliant deeds [the French Revolution, for example--TC] seemed to remain without brilliant results, to end in trivialities, and, on the other, all progress of the Spirit [the Protestant Reformation, for example--TC] had so far been progress against the mass of mankind, driving it into an ever more dehumanized situation. They therefore declared "progress" (see Fourier) to be an inadequate, abstract phrase; they assumed (see Owen among others) a fundamental flaw in the civilized world; that is why they subjected the real foundations of contemporary society to incisive criticism.

That is, as the democratic promises of the English and French Revolutions were drowned in an orgy of capitalistic enrichment and brutality, early communist thinkers stopped looking for abstract truths or the perfect idea with which to overcome or smooth over the wretched state of society. Instead, they decided that society must be transformed from the bottom up. And as soon as they started to look for these concrete solutions, they found that their intellectual activity, unlike the Critical Critics, was not in opposition to "the mass," but could only grow up alongside and within that mass:

This communist criticism had practically at once as its counterpart the movement of a great mass, in opposition to which history had been developing so far. One must know the studiousness, the craving for knowledge, the moral energy and unceasing urge for development of the French and English workers to be able to form an idea of the human nobility of this movement. (p. 84, CW, Vol. 4)

Marx does not clearly link this discussion back to his earlier assertions about the "necessity" of the proletariat fulfilling its "being," and so leaves us with a question. Does it matter if the workers are "studious" or not? Or will their social conditions force them to become revolutionaries however they may "regard" themselves.

I think it safe to say that Marx is fighting on two fronts that are not quite connected: First, he believes that by applying Hegel's dialectic philosophy of change to material conditions (the economy), he is able to prove that communism is a historical necessity; and, second, flesh and blood, living and breathing, working-class individuals are just as capable of learning and producing knowledge as the philosophers are, and their actions ought to inspire, as opposed to repel, any intellectual concerned with justice and truth.

In other words, communism is necessary and the workers want it. Look out, world! A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Communism...but that's getting ahead of ourselves.

HAVING DISPENSED with Bruno Bauer's conception of timeless truths as a series of revelations blooming in the minds of philosophers, Marx seeks to apply this insight to a practical historical case.

For European radicals in the 1840s, the great French Revolution of 1789 remained a revolutionary inspiration, pointing to the potential for dramatic social change. Bauer himself addresses it--however, according to Marx, he views it principally as a backdrop against which to work out his ideas. Or as Marx puts it, Bauer only considers the French Revolution as "figments of its own brain." (p. 118-119, CW, Vol. 4)

Contrasting his method to that of the Critical Critics, Marx argues that, "ideas can never lead beyond an old world order, but only beyond the ideas of the old world order. Ideas cannot carry out anything at all. In order to carry out ideas, men are needed who can exert practical force."

Contrasting his conclusion to that of Bauer, Marx writes that "it was not the revolutionary movement as a whole that became the prey of Napoleon on 18 Brumaire [the date when Napoleon launched his coup d'état--TC], as Criticism [suggests, but rather]...it was the liberal bourgeoisie." (p. 123, CW, Vol. 4)

Marx claims that the concept of the "Revolution" is not specific enough. In its place, he analyzes not only the contending classes, but even sections of those classes (the liberal versus the conservative or apolitical sections of the bourgeoisie) and their specific interests within the political process. Rather than simply considering the political slogan "the rights of man," Marx seeks the class content of the Revolution. Under Napoleon, he wrote:

a storm and stress of commercial enterprise, a passion for enrichment; the exuberance of the new bourgeois life, whose first self-enjoyment is pert, lighthearted, frivolous and intoxicating...the first moves of industry that have now become free--these were some of the signs of life of the newly emerged bourgeois society. Bourgeois society is positively represented by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie, therefore, begins its rule. The rights of man cease to exist merely in theory." (p. 123, CW, Vol. 4)

If Bauer sees only hypocrisy in Napoleon's dictatorship and seeks to explain it merely at the level of philosophy (perhaps the language or concepts in the slogan rights of man were inadequate?), Marx explains why only a semblance (remember this from above?) of the Revolution's ideals can take root under the new bourgeois rulers of France.

Under the king, there could be no consideration at all of the "rights of man." If under the bourgeoisie, those rights are only partially applied--and not forgetting that the rights of woman are not even mentioned--then that only goes to show that a new class with radical chains must, in turn, overcome the bourgeoisie.

No one with any sense would argue that The Holy Family is an easy read. If nothing else, Engels probably learned the dangers of leaving Marx alone with his thoughts for long periods of time. In fact, one of Engels' principal tasks over the next 40 years would be editing Marx's writings into publishable form. Yet even if Marx found only a tiny audience for this book, it helped him work out his ideas about working-class revolution, knowledge as a social product, and history as a series of battles between contending classes.

Over the coming months, Engels would add living color to Marx's theoretical sketches. Back home in Germany, Engels sat down amid a mountain of sources from his time in Manchester to write one of the most remarkable books in the history of muckraking. The Condition of the English Working Class puts Engels in the same league as Jack London, Jeremy Scahill and Naomi Klein when it comes to exposing the blood and guts of capitalist profiteering. It's also a great read.

AS USUAL, The Condition of the English Working Class is available at the Marxist Internet Archive. You can also order it on Amazon for a few bucks, including a 99 cent Kindle version!

I suggest reading the whole book and just skimming over the long parts describing various branches of industry. However, it is about 300 pages long, so concentrate on these chapters: Introduction (15 pages), The Industrial Proletariat (first four pages), The Great Towns (first four pages), Irish Immigration (four pages), Results (first four pages), Factory Hands (first 12 pages), Labor Movement (18 pages), Attitude of the Bourgeoisie (last three pages). That's about 66 pages.

Further Reading

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