Chris Harman

Marx: ideas and struggle

(June 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 88, June 1986, pp. 28–29.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The German Ideology
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Lawrence & Wishart £2.50

HISTORICAL materialism is the name usually given to Marx’s account of how society develops and changes. It is the method which underlay his own brilliant overview of history in the Communist Manifesto, his pamphlets and articles analysing major political struggles, and his account of the capitalist economic system in Capital.

But in his own lifetime he published only a rudimentary account of that method – in a couple of pages of his preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

This made it easy for people to distort his ideas after his death. The distortion occurred at the hands both of his enemies and of some of those who sought to popularise his ideas. They claimed that historical materialism meant that the only thing that mattered was technical or economic development, and that it determined in advance the course of political changes or ideological disputes. If this was so, there really did not seem a great deal of point in socialists struggling to build revolutionary organisations or in worrying about how to react to events. For the outcome of history was decided completely independently of their actions or their consciousness.

Such a fatalistic view was far from the attitude Marx himself, for instance, expressed in his account of events in France in 1850, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. ‘Men make history,’ he wrote, ‘but they do so in circumstances not of their own choosing.’

But it was two works by Marx published after his death that best expressed his own views. The first of these was The Theses on Feuerbach, which he penned in 1845 and which Engels eventually published 43 years later.

In these he criticised the German materialist philosopher Feuerbach for not understanding the significance of human activity in shaping the world and in enabling us to test our understanding of it.

The second work, The German Ideology, was written jointly by Marx and Engels between November 1845 and August 1846. It did not see the light of day until the 1930s.

The work takes the form of an extended polemic against the radical German intelligentsia of the time.

Europe was experiencing the first stirrings of the radicalism which was to erupt into the revolutions of 1848. In France republicans were beginning to rediscover an audience among the quite large urban middle class, and the first socialists were beginning to attract a following among the workers.

Germany was much more backward industrially. The middle class was weak and not prepared to go beyond the most faint hearted of challenges to the princelings who ran the different German states. The intellectuals reflected this backwardness by believing that their ideas alone could change society, without any need to mobilise real social forces behind them.

One expression of the backwardness of German society was the domination of religious ideas. Even the greatest German philosopher, Hegel, had ended up justifying these. The young radicals, known as ‘Young Hegelians’, believed that simply by proving the falseness of his philosophic conclusions they could undermine religion and transform society.

As Marx put it:

‘The Young Hegelians consider conceptions, thought, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness, to which they attribute an independent existence, as the real chains of men (just as the old Hegelians declare them the real bonds of human society) ...’

But this meant that instead of calling for a radical change in material conditions, they simply called for a change in the way in which people interpreted this condition. In reality they had not broken with an essentially religious view of the world, but were instead trying to fight religion on its own ground. For this reason, Marx referred to two of their number as ‘Saint Bruno’ (Bauer) and ‘Saint Max’ (Stirner). Long detailed criticisms of their writings makes up the bulk of The German Ideology. These are of little relevance today. But the first chapter, called Feuerbach is very different. It contains very clear statements of Marx’s method which remain worth reading.

His contention is not that ideas do not matter. It is that ideas arise out of people’s material activity, and cannot be detached from that.

‘Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real active men ... Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life process.

‘We set out from real active men and on the basis of this we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process. The phantoms of the human brain are necessarily sublimates of men’s material life process, which can be empirically established and which is bound to material preconditions.’

The mistake of the German radicals was to separate ideas off from the material circumstances in which they had arisen, and then to see history as simply the history of a succession of different ideas.

Marx’s approach is to see people’s ideas as developing out of the conditions in which they live, even if they then react back upon those conditions.

‘The premises from which we start are not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find existing and those which they produce by their own activity.’

Human beings cannot live without working together to get a livelihood from their environment.

‘The first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relationship to the rest of nature ... The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the actions of men.

‘We must begin by stating the first real premise of human existence, and therefore all human history, the premise that men must be able to live in order to “make history”. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things.’

This is ‘a fundamental condition of all human society, which today as thousands of years ago, must be daily and hourly fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.’

In order to get this livelihood, people have to cooperate with each other. Changes in the ways of producing such a livelihood – what Marx calls changes in the forces of production – can only occur if they are accompanied by changes in the relations of cooperation between people. In The German Ideology Marx talks of ‘forms of material intercourse’ which develop with changes in production. In his later works he replaces this phrase with that of ‘relations of production’. But the essential argument is the same.

Society as a whole is structured by the demands of production:

‘The social structure and the state are continually evolving out of the life processes of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imaginations, but as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will.’

It is the needs of production which lead, for a whole historical period, to the development of different classes. Production can only advance if there is ‘division of labour’, with one section of society forcing others to produce a surplus which it concentrates in its own hands. During this period:

‘The social power, i.e. the multiplied productive force, which arises through the cooperation of different individuals ... appears to these individuals...not as their own united, but as an alien force existing outside of them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they are thus no longer able to control, which on the contrary passes through a peculiar series of phases and stages independent of the will and action of man ...’

This period of class society could not be ended until it had led to an enormous growth of the productive forces and had ‘rendered the great mass of humanity “propertyless” and ... in contradiction to existing wealth and power’.

Until then any attempt at getting rid of class exploitation was bound to fail:

‘This development of the productive forces is 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 be restored ...

‘Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of the productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them.’

The language of the first part of The German Ideology is at times a bit stilted: Marx had not quite broken fully with the terminology of the Young Hegelians himself. And as he later acknowledged, some of the historical material he used in it soon proved inadequate by further research.

But it still remains necessary – and stimulating – reading for anyone who really wants to come to grips with Marx’s historical method.

Last updated on 27 October 2019