‘The German Ideology’ is a retrieved set of manuscripts by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published some 87 years after they were originally written. Some scholars argue the collection of manuscripts should not be considered a real text at all. Others, like Tom Whyman, argue the work provides the core of Marx’s thought and the primary ideas that have relevance to all of us.
If philosophy is important – if anyone in human history has ever been an ‘important’ philosopher – then Karl Marx is. The nature of philosophical thought and writing, insulated from practice in the curious way that it is, is such that philosophers must typically be anxious about the ‘real-world’ impact of their work: is there actually any point to this at all? But Marx’s ideas both have driven, and continue to drive, actual events of seismic importance to actual global human history – and in a much more direct way than those of, say, Plato or Descartes.
As Marx famously wrote in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point is to change it.” If this is to be the measure (and leaving aside the question, which anyone on the right would ask at this point, as to whether this change must actually be good), then Marx’s philosophical career must be accounted a monumental success.
But Marx was not just a philosopher; he was also a political activist, a polemical journalist, and an economist. Trained as a philosopher, with a PhD on Ancient Atomism, most of Marx’s important specifically philosophical work was written in the 1840s, when he was still a young man, often left unfinished, and never published in his lifetime. The ideas developed in this work – the Paris Manuscripts, The German Ideology – filtered through Marx’s later writings. But the writings themselves only became generally available in the 1930s, when editions were produced by a team of editors working in the Soviet Union: in short, Marx’s philosophical writings only became widely available after his ideas had already changed the world.
Marx’s philosophy thus presents scholars with a wealth of interpretative problems. Obviously, a certain sort of historian of philosophy loves a good textual controversy – and The German Ideology, Marx’s most extensive and best-developed specifically philosophical texts, is notable for presenting a whole wealth of them. The most famous chapter of the work is supposed to focus on Ludwig Feuerbach, the post-Hegelian humanist materialist who was the most formative philosophical influence on the young Marx (it can be hard to understand Marx’s early writings without a prior orientation in Feuerbach’s vocabulary – even if it is not always clear whether or not Marx is using Feuerbach’s words in the same way). But the chapter, as we have it, barely mentions Feuerbach by name at all, and instead seems to have been constructed from other notes to fill a presumed gap by The German Ideology’s 1930s editor, David Riazanov.
If The German Ideology really ‘doesn’t exist’, as some scholars now like to claim, then it is one of the most exciting and important philosophical texts ever to not be written.
For all this, however, the chapter (such as it is) remains incredibly vibrant and, in fact, almost incalculably important: the document in which Marx outlines his philosophy of history, explains how and why Communist revolution will be possible, tells us what sort of thing a human being is, and effectively demolishes the entire Hegelian, Idealist tradition in philosophy that had come before him – including Feuerbach, an anti-Idealist who nevertheless remained too Idealist by Marx’s lights. If The German Ideology really ‘doesn’t exist’, as some scholars now like to claim, then it is one of the most exciting and important philosophical texts ever to not be written.
The other major difficulty that The German Ideology presents is that – Feuerbach chapter aside – the work is dominated by an extremely long (roughly 300-page) chapter on Max Stirner, a contemporary nihilist philosopher, known to Engels personally, who shared many of Marx and Engels’s criticisms of Idealist philosophy, but used them as the basis for a philosophy which preached not Communist revolution but rather a form of radical Egoism. While not as consistently brilliant as the alleged chapter on Feuerbach, the Stirner chapter contains many invaluable insights into, and clarifications of, the material covered there. Sadly, these have been concealed not by over-enthusiastic editing, but rather by not nearly enough; as we have it, the Stirner chapter is rendered borderline unreadable by overlong quotations from Stirner’s book, The Ego and Its Own, sloppy organisation, and a weighty preponderance of functionally indecipherable in-jokes.
When reading Marx (or when teaching him, or writing about him), these specifically textual issues are compounded by the sheer scale of Marx’s impact on the world. The history of Marx’s ideas forces us to ask questions of his philosophy that are simply not asked of other authors. “Is any of this realistic?” “Hasn’t history shown that this doesn’t work?” “Wouldn’t this just lead to more oppression?” And this is regardless of whether or not one’s favoured image of the Soviet Union is Red October or Stalinist terror. Marx is not only to be judged by his own writings – he is also, it seems, answerable to the actions of everyone who has ever claimed to be inspired by them.
But when reading Marx as a philosopher, it is important not to get bogged down in these difficulties. Marx did not write any complete, systematic philosophical texts which are supposed to contain the answers to everything. Even Capital, much more systematic, does not do this; Capital Vol. 1 was the only major text Marx actually finished to publishable satisfaction during his lifetime, and even then he used to write to people to tell them to read the chapters in a different order to the one he’d originally assembled them in. Marx wanted to understand how capitalism worked (which is why he wrote Capital); ensconced in the tradition of German Idealism, he wanted to figure out why there was such a stark mismatch between how Idealist authors described the human subject (as rational, and free), and how most “real, active men” were actually forced to live; he wanted to be able to figure out how a ‘truly’ human life might actually be made possible for all.
This, to my mind, is what Marx as a philosopher really gives us – not a genuinely workable template for the final revolution, eternally ready to be put into practice, but rather a sort of framing, for how philosophical ideas might relate – both happen to relate, and to also be intentionally related – to life.
This, to my mind, is what Marx as a philosopher really gives us – not a genuinely workable template for the final revolution, eternally ready to be put into practice, but rather a sort of framing, for how philosophical ideas might relate – both happen to relate, and to also be intentionally related – to life. This is Marx and Engels’s overcoming of the Idealist tradition in philosophy, in which Geist – spirit, mind, which in Hegel’s philosophy progressively unfolds throughout history – is supposed to be the ultimate standard of correctness, in which a revolution might take place in the realm of pure thought. In Marx and Engels’s words, “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” – all thought is to be anchored in the ways we ‘reproduce’ our material life, make and acquire the things we need in order to survive. For Marx, we always think as creatures who eat, shit, fuck; who get too cold, or too hot; who are lazy, and want other people to do things on our behalf. Against the bombastic pretensions of Idealism, Marx’s work places Spirit firmly on its stomach. From this framing, what emerges are not iron laws of history or ideological dogma or anything like this, but rather a model for how we might investigate the present: to grasp what potentials might lie within our present moment, for things to be different, for things to actually be made better.
For Marx, we always think as creatures who eat, shit, fuck; who get too cold, or too hot; who are lazy, and want other people to do things on our behalf.
There have obviously been many directions, both practical and theoretical, in which Marx’s ideas have been taken. Far from me to say this is the only one. But from this perspective, Marx as a philosopher is someone who anticipates, perhaps more than anyone else, the later Wittgenstein – attempting ‘therapeutically’ to dissolve philosophical problems, and get back to the ‘rough ground’ of life as lived.
The difference is that whereas Wittgenstein’s ‘therapy’ is often thought to result in a form of quietism, Marx’s therapy – materialism as philosophical therapy – is intended as an invitation to be more active. To work, in short, in the interests of what he and Engels describe in The German Ideology as “the real movement which abolishes the existing state of things.” This is what Marx the philosopher can offer us today.