Karl Marx and Human Self-creation, Cyril Smith (2002)

1. Introduction

Both 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 become fitted to found society anew. (Marx, The German Ideology.)

Long, long ago, when I was young, socialism was very simple. A small minority of greedy rich people exploited the mass of poor people, those who produced the wealth of the world. If we, the vast majority, got ourselves organised, we could easily take the wealth into our hands, along with the means to produce it. Then centralised planning would ensure a rising standard of living and all major problems of social life could be resolved.

Of course, there was the little problem of how the transition would begin. Some of us thought that the majority could elect their representatives and form a socialist government. Others believed that wouldn’t work, because of the violent resistance of the rulers: more drastic measures would be required. It seemed self-evident that dedicated socialists like us, if we tried hard enough, could set up a new way of living for all. Other people would soon see how right we had been.

Such notions have gone forever. The twentieth century tried out every possible solution to these problems, and demonstrated that each of them was infeasible. The leaders of the labour movement have several times formed elected governments, which all collapsed in corruption and betrayal. The outcome of the most important attempt, the 1917 revolution, was the most monstrous tyranny. Socialism, however we understood it, was a failure. No wonder that, especially after the collapse of the Russian Revolution, nobody thinks in such terms any more. Of course, the old words remain, but ‘socialism’ is nowadays little more than another name for bureaucratic state-ownership, perhaps flavoured with a bit of social welfare.

Meanwhile, the continued existence of capital entails an ever-increasing series of appalling social crises. The money-relationship, taking hold of areas of life we could not have imagined, eats away at the brain and heart of society and the state, destroying culture, nature and humanity. A handful of multi-billionaires control huge multinational corporations and thus the world’s productive system, while billions of people starve.

All this is well known, but finding a way out appears impossible. When the global ‘anti-capitalist’ movements erupted, they generated renewed hope. It was good to see how they firmly broke from decrepit formulae. But, so far at any rate, they have shown unbounded confusion, and sometimes seem to have made a virtue of not going too deeply into what they are aiming at. Many of these young people see the problem as the bad behaviour of ‘uncontrolled’ multi-national corporations which, they imagine, might be embarrassed into being better behaved. Others, struggling to avoid the alternatives of the domination of inhuman ‘market forces’ and a corrupt centralised bureaucratic state, try to envisage a return to a time before capital, or even before civilisation.

Some of my earliest memories are of serious arguments about how we could persuade people to work in a collectively-organised manner. Sceptics were always asking: ‘Who would look after the sewers?’ (Sanitation seemed to concern them a great deal.) If there was plenty of everything for everybody, why should anyone work? We had our answer, of course: although, under present conditions, people were understandably selfish and competitive, driven to fight each other for scarce means to live, once we had (very kindly) provided them with a decent way of life, they would soon learn better ways. Our opponents said repeatedly – always as if they were the first to think of it – that socialism seemed a good idea ‘in theory’, but – human nature being what it is.... We answered with the assertion that human nature was not a constant and that we were sure we could fix it.

Such an all-embracing social engineering project needed a basis in a social physics and the only candidate for this position was called ‘Marxism’. But, at a fundamental level, what we called ‘Marxism’ was not just different from the ideas of Marx but their direct opposite. The theoretical framework called ‘Marxism’ purported to be a doctrine, sometimes even a ‘complete and integral world outlook’. (Plekhanov, Lenin.). When we ‘Marxists’ claimed to be ‘scientific’, we had in mind an analogy with the certainties of the natural sciences. We saw ourselves as inheritors of the tradition known as the Enlightenment, which in the eighteenth century had fought so bravely against the old ideas of religion and superstition, laying the basis for the modern rational science of nature and for liberty, equality and fraternity.

The ‘Marxists’ explained that those eighteenth-century thinkers were not quite able to attain a scientific view of history, but that ‘Marxism’ had provided that extension. There was developed a ‘theory of history’ called ‘historical materialism’, an ‘economic doctrine’, sometimes referred to as ‘Marxist economics’, and a philosophical outlook, called ‘dialectical materialism’. None of this was to be found in the writings of Karl Marx and when, in the 1960s, important texts of Marx were studied for the first time, the most strenuous efforts failed to reconcile them with ‘Marxism’.

Marx works to demonstrate that living humanly, in a manner ‘worthy of and appropriate to our human nature’ (Capital, Vol. 3), would mean a free association of human individuals, an association in which ‘the free development of each individual is the condition for the free development of all’ (Manifesto). He shows that individuals are ‘alienated’, dominated by the relations between them which they themselves have made. A truly human way of life is incompatible with private property, wage-labour, money and the state, but is actually in accord with nature, and the way that humanity, at whose heart lies free, creative, social activity, emerged from the blind activity of nature.

Marx is not responsible for a ‘doctrine’ of any kind, neither a teaching about what the world ought to be, nor an explanation of the way the world works. He conceives of humanity as socially self-creating, and this clashes with anything which purports to be a ‘doctrine’ or ‘theory’ of any kind. For ‘doctrine’ means separating the ‘teacher’ from the ordinary person being taught, a separation which is itself a symptom of the sick, fragmented way of life of modernity. Today, entities like money, capital and the state are crazily accepted as subjects; at the same time, we treat each other and ourselves, not as free, self-creating subjects, but as if we were things. That is how we necessarily cut ourselves off from understanding ourselves.

While human freedom means that humans – all of us – consciously create their own lives under mutually-agreed relations, socialism sought the re-arrangement of a given collection of humans by a self-appointed set of re-arrangers. Marx is after something quite different: ‘the alteration of men [Menschen = humans] on a mass scale’. What might this mean? Clearly, he is not talking about each individual changing him- or herself, one at a time, for he shows that the essence of humanity is ‘the ensemble of social relations': history is the process in which we all make each other. Marx’s aim is nothing less than a collective struggle by all of us to remake our world, our social relations and ourselves: self-creation. This is what he means by freedom. The notion that some people, the socialists, will remake the world, has nothing to do with Marx.

What does it mean to make something? It generally implies, among other things, that the object made will exist outside you when it is done, and will be compared with the aim which preceded the job. So what can it mean to make yourself, as a consciously planned outcome? Each attempt to fulfil your aim will lead to changes in yourself, both as subject and as object, and thus the aim. Even harder: how could this include the conscious making of the social relations between the makers? But Marx, acknowledging his debt to Hegel, was attempting to express nothing less.

So this idea of self-creation is not a simple one. Perhaps it would be easier if we first thought about creation in general, just the deliberate act of bringing something into being which did not exist before. Aristotle gave this question some attention. Surprisingly, he seems to have been the last philosopher to do so for over two thousand years, and even he could not consider the creation of social relations. Since his time, it has been God’s act of creation of the world, rather than human production, that has received most of the attention. So we can’t avoid turning to religion to illuminate our question.

Of course, over the millennia, there have been many types of religious accounts of the world, communal attempts to understand how humans relate to nature and to each other, and the story of Creation was usually central to them. Chambers English Dictionary, for example, defines religion like this:

Belief in, recognition of, or an awakened sense of, a higher unseen controlling power, with the emotion and morality connected therewith: rites or worship: any system of such belief or worship: devoted fidelity.

The etymology is also worth recalling: ‘perh. conn. with religare, to bind.’ The process over the past few centuries in which religion took a reduced role in Europe, was certainly accompanied by the weakening of this binding function.

Over the past few thousand years, intellectual and political activity has largely taken religious forms, and this ought not to be ignored. Perhaps we can distinguish two main versions. In the mainline monotheistic religions, God is the Almighty Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and human activities are strictly secondary. God made the world as he willed it to be, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But this is not the only way of thinking and might even have been a minority view. Other mystical and religious accounts give quite different answers. For varieties of Buddhism, for example, the question does not arise: the world has always existed, and always will.

But there have also been a wide variety of mystical religious standpoints, most of them heretically clashing with the established outlook, for whom, while a divine power was involved in creating a world, the result remained incomplete. To finish it, human activity had to collaborate with the divine. Such ideas give human beings a starring role, and this makes a big difference to the relation between nature and humanity. Nature is seen as an active unity, in which human purposive activity plays a part. In this category, we shall mention Jewish Cabbalists, Islamic Sufis and some Christian heretics, entwined with Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism and Hermetism. For such thinkers, divine creation of the world was self-creation, God making Himself through Nature and through us.

And that will bring us to Hegel. Describing his own kind of ‘speculative philosophy’ as mysticism, Hegel drew on the work of that long line of mystics. After Aristotle, he seems to have been one of the few philosophers, as opposed to straight theologians, to look at the problem of human and divine creative process, and, through his concept of Spirit, explicitly to bring them together. Only after examining his relation to the heretics will it be possible for us to return to Marx and his critique of Hegel. Then we shall see that, grasping humanity as self-creating, Marx is opposed to every attempt to consider humanity and its destiny from inside a closed or complete intellectual system. He never forgets that he is a human being talking about human beings. That is why ‘Marxism’, which found this quite distasteful, was so hostile to the real ideas of Marx.

But we have missed something out of this story. Starting in the seventeenth century, and especially in eighteenth, all such questions, intensely important to previous centuries, seemed to fade away. Armed with the advances of science and technology, many thinkers opposed the oppressive political and intellectual authority of the Church. But this led them simply to dismiss as ‘superstition’ the ideas of thousands of years, with the aid of which people have struggled with some of the central questions of existence. What was left gave little or no attention to asking about how individuals related to each other, to the community as a whole or to the natural world in which they lived and died. For the new rational-scientific outlook, making something new meant re-arranging bits of the existing world.

So freedom could mean no more than the removal of some obstacles to the will of the isolated individual. Society could be nothing but a discrete collection of such individuals, and the individuals could not be seen as more than grains of subjectivity whirling around inside a mindless, indifferent, deterministic nature-machine.

I want to show that Hegel, followed by Feuerbach and Marx, had to re-connect with those older, ‘heretical’ traditions to do their work, re-discovering them and giving them a modern form. This entailed breaking through the barrier of the Enlightenment and its successors, like, for instance, nineteenth-century positivists. Only then can freedom and self-creation be brought to light in the conditions of modern life. Of course, we don’t reject the powerful contribution made by the rationalism and empiricism, or the great struggles for individual freedom. Without their conquests and their limitations, we can’t begin to move forward. But we have to go beyond them. Only then can Marx find out how we must struggle to make them a reality.

(The critique of the Enlightenment made by Hegel and Marx has little to do with that made by the post-modern fashion. As we shall see, Marx’s critical standpoint is that of ‘human society or social humanity’, and Hegel’s is what he calls Geist. Since I do not speak the language in which the post-modernists communicate their thoughts to the world, I am not able to say what their standpoint actually is.)

My first task, then, is to look at a long line of thinkers, mainly religious mystics, whose work feeds into that of Hegel. (I have missed out lots of others, about whom he says nothing, while including one or two who, while they are not actually mentioned by him, directly connect with those who are.)