Marx Myths and Legends. Cyril Smith

Marx and Materialism

Source: “Marx and Materialism” was written for “Marx Myths and Legends” by Cyril Smith in September 2004, and rights remain with the author, as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

Today, increasing numbers of people are struck by the suspicion that Marx was not the man we all thought, but very few are aware how far the ‘Marxist’ picture was from the reality. Many think that Marx may be judged by the comprehensiveness of his ‘complete’ works. Not many are conscious that his difficulty of finishing any one of his projects was a sign of his essential incompleteness of his overall task: the construction of communism. Unlike his devoted followers, he was not prepared to let revolutionary impatience stand in the way of clarity.

Let us begin with Lenin, with the early work, ‘What the Friends of the People are’. Lenin writes:

“We do not say to the world,” Marx wrote as far back as 1843, and he fulfilled this programme to the letter, “we do not say to the world: ‘cease struggling, your whole struggle is senseless’. All we do is to provide it with a true slogan of struggle.”

That is what Lenin wrote in 1893, and meant it all his life. But this is what Marx wrote in 1843:

We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.

Lenin did not intend to distort the words of Marx, but was incapable of imagining such a humanist thought possible for the founder of ‘Marxism’.

So here we have two programmes, the programmes of Marx and Lenin : on the one side, ‘Marxism’, on the other, the figure of Karl Marx. The former holds that ‘Marxism’ is a certainty, an unlimited collection of truth, or as Lenin, echoing Plekhanov, put it, ‘a complete, integral world outlook’, ‘cast from a single sheet of steel’. To the latter, on the contrary, it is an organic growth.

In 1843, Marx was just beginning. As he told Karl Kautsky a lifetime later, he couldn’t publish his collected works, because they had not been written. (That was in 1882.) In 1843 he had not yet developed his notions yet of class struggle, of the dictatorship of the proletariat, of value. But already the notion was present of a truly human world. At this stage he thought of himself as a Feuerbachian. But Feuerbach was some kind of materialist. For such thinkers, the world existed, and we had to make our thoughts conform to it, and by ‘thought’, the materialists mean no more than activity of a single, isolated human head. But Marx, while — partially — agreeing with Feuerbach in his criticism of Hegel, has nothing to do with him in his conception of society. His discoveries of the proletariat and of communism are unaffected by Feuerbach.

When he writes his Comments on James Mill (1844), he is quite clearly not a ‘materialist’:

If then our mutual thraldom to the object at the beginning of the process is now seen to be in reality the relationship between master and slave, that is merely the crude and frank expression of our essential relationship. Our mutual value is for us the value of our mutual relationships. Hence for us man himself is mutually of no value.

The object cannot be seen as merely an ‘object’, but only as a social product. As such it is not merely something which affects the ‘thought’ in my head or yours, but which is a link between us and everybody else. But this is in contradiction with our human being.

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. ... I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and the other person. ... and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love.

When he came in 1845 to write his Theses on Feuerbach, he could launch an attack on materialism: The very first Thesis begins:

The chief defect of all previous materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that things [Gegenstaende], reality, sensuousness are 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 set forth abstractly by idealism — which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such — Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from conceptual objects, but he does conceive objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. In Das Wesen des Christentums he therefore regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance. Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’ activity.

And Thesis 3 returns to the subject:

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself 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-change [Selbstveraenderung] can be conceived and rationally understood as revolutionary practice.

The point is that Marx is not a philosopher. He is a critic of philosophy. That does not mean that he disagrees with this or that philosophy, but that he takes the questions that philosophy asks and shows that the answers are to be found by relating the questions to the contradictions of society.

Marx had learned from Hegel one lesson which he never forgot: putting in front of society a ‘slogan’, a formula, a set of ‘sectarian principles’ with which to make the world correspond is not the point. The social formation Marx strove for all his life was a human society, which he fought to release. While he respected the work of Fourier and Owen, he saw it as foreshadowing the Communism that arose from the sufferings of the proletariat itself.

In 1859, Marx published Critique of Political Economy, Part 1. (There was no Part 2. Capital, Volume 1 was published eight years later.) The Preface to the Critique, which Marx used to summarise his views, is noteworthy, among other reasons, for its complete failure to mention the topics we have been talking about. Instead, he refers to the ‘the social production of the being’, and contains the celebrated — and much misunderstood — account of relations of production relations and productive forces. I would only like to point out that the whole of this passage ends with the statement that ‘the pre-history of human society accordingly closes with this social formation’.

The distinction between human productive forces and social relations of production, the key point in Marx’s whole outlook, is ignored by the ‘Marxists’. They simply cannot see what all the fuss is about. Communism, which turns on the re-unification of these two, is beyond them.

Let us jump a few decades, to 1873. In the Afterword [Nachwort] which he wrote to the Second Edition of Capital, Marx felt it necessary to reply to a reviewer of the First Edition on the question of the method of the book and its relationship to that of Hegel:

My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but the direct opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the Idea’, is the creator of the actual, and the actual is only the external appearance of the idea. With me, the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material reflected and translated in the mind of man.

And he goes on to contrast the dialectical method and its role in history in Hegel’s case and in his own.

‘Marxist’ translators have gone to great lengths to make this look like ‘materialism’. The best to date is Penguin translation, due to Ben Fowkes:

With me, the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought.

The Untermann translation is much more direct:

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.

Eden and Cedar Paul give the following:

In my view, on the other hand, the ideal is nothing other than the material since it has been transposed and translated inside the human head.

Marx’s original is as follows:

Bei mir ist umgekehrt das Idealle nichts andres als das in Menschenkopf ungesetzte und ubersetzte Materialle.

What these people miss, is the meaning of Hegel, and without that, there was no possibility of recognising the message of Marx. In everybody up to and including Kant, the pair ‘form’ and ‘matter’ confront of each other, and there is no way of proceeding from one to the other. Hegel was the first person to break away from this, and Marx does not go back on it. For the translators of Capital, being ‘materialists’, the Kantian standpoint is the most advanced they can reach. (Kant himself, was able to see, dimly, the contradictions in this. From then on, the attitude of most thinkers was pre-Kantian.) Marx is inverting Hegel without returning to the earlier point of view. Hegel’s ‘Mind’ (or ‘Spirit’ [Geist]) is far from the ‘Marxist’s’. His meaning comprises at least as much as his understanding of ‘world’, and Marx’s use of this word never ignores that of Hegel. What eludes Hegel’s grasp is that with the victory of the proletariat the revelation of the meaning of the history places the true significance of Mind in the heads of the individuals of the whole of society.

This appears to be strange time to rediscover the true heritage of Marx. Bush and Blair, along with their counterparts Bin Laden and Putin, seem to have things their own way. How can anyone can imagine that human life could be so different? Well, the works of Karl Marx, if we decide to read them as they were written, can indicate a direction we might take.


See also: How the ‘Marxists’ Buried Marx and The Origins of ‘Marxism’,
from Marx at the Millennium, Cyril Smith 1998.