Karl Marx

The Materialist Critique

Thomas Masini

 An understanding, no matter how deep and in accordance with reality, is useless if it does not aim at its concrete transformation.

     In the previous article, [1] we presented the key points of Schopenhauer’s work, Hegel’s greatest rival. Now, however, we shall examine the thought of the latter’s ‘ideal’ pupil, who has had such an impact on our history that his name is known far beyond the mere realm of philosophy. We are, naturally, talking about the philosopher from Trier: Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx belongs to the group of three intellectuals for whom Paul Ricoeur coined the expression ‘masters of suspicion’, referring to the common feature present in their thought: the critique of ideologies that are understood as manifestations of false consciousness. In other words, the world consisting of ethical-moral principles, socio-political institutions and artistic-religious manifestations, is nothing but an illusory superstructure that emerges from the true underlying reality, from what truly governs the lives of human beings. The three ‘masters of suspicion’ are Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, and they hold that the true world-making realities are respectively: economic relations, the will to power andthe subconscious.

     Marx has been said to be Hegel’s ideal pupil. This is true not only because many of his analyses of social and political relations find their counterpart in the Tübingen philosopher’s Elements of the Philosphy of Right – the work that completes theTübingen philosopher’s system –  but also because the structure of historical change in Marx’s thought is indebted to the Hegelian dialectic. It would be interesting to see these connections in depth, but it is impractical to extend the current article that far. Therefore, it will be best to begin by presenting Marx’s thought as it emerges from his own works.

     The common way of thinking in the pre-Marx era – and in reality even today – was that the social community was thought to regulate itself according to the following framework: the common perception, systematised by the cultural elite, constitutes a Weltanschauung, i.e. a ‘world view’, to which the individuals that constitute a society adapt to create a physical structure that fits this thought. For instance, in medieval times, the framework was the religious one, based on the structure of the higher divine powers (God, father and creator, the legions of archangels, angels, etc.). As a result, human society was organised according to a well-defined hierarchy, whereby States were governed by the sovereign (such by birth and divine will), nobility (who had the task of managing the lands assigned to them by the sovereign), soldiers (committed to guaranteeing safety), religious orders (committed to maintaining and guarding the spiritual order), and commoners (destined to work to allow the survival of the classes who, committed to their respective tasks, could not provide for their primary needs alone).In other words: sicut in caeloet in terra – ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. Marx reverses this approach, suggesting that the origin of social structures is to be found not in the realm of ideas, but in the earthly, and more precisely in the way economic dealings develop throughout time:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. [2]

Marx’s reasoning is clear: just as the dominating class – which is such thanks to its material power, i.e. the means of material production – subjugates the other classes in the economic-productive field, it subjugates them likewise in the field of ideas. It does so because, unencumbered by the productive necessities delegated to the other classes, it can devote itself to the world of thought. Furthermore, it can decide to use the means of production in the way that suits the ideal system it has designed; and, finally, it can use the material production that guarantees the survival of all as a compulsive way of imposing its own worldview. This is how Marx explicates the way in which he believes it is necessary to analyse reality, which he contrasts with what he calls the ‘critique  of critical criticism’, i.e. the approach of the Hegelian left that is still excessively linked to idealistic transcendentality:

We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. [3]

     Marx, following the principles stated in this passage, considers it necessary to analyse the life of human beings in their practicality, choosing as his field of investigation the relationship between what he calls the ‘proletarians’ and the possessors of the means of production, the ‘capitalists’. These two terms are chosen to indicate the substantial difference that exists between them: while on the one hand capitalists possess the means of production as their personal ‘capital’, proletarians possess only their own ‘labour power’, i.e. the limited amount of work they can perform on a daily basis. It is precisely on this basis of these categories that Marx elaborates one of his best-known theories, namely the famous surplus value. Explaining surplus value, at least in more general terms, is not complicated. Marx’s idea is to show how the exchange that takes place between capitalists and proletarians is flawed, i.e. how the former become increasingly wealthier while the latter constantly exist in a destitute state. This relationship is based on their cooperation in industrial production: the capitalist brings the means of production as his own contribution, while the proletarians, obviously, contribute the only counter-value they possess – their own labour. In exchange for the possession of the commodity produced, the capitalist guarantees the proletarians the means of livelihood, and this is precisely where – according to Marx – the deception lies. Let us assume that the value of all that a single worker consumes to survive each day (food, clothes, wear and tear on everyday objects, medicine, etc.) is 1; the capitalist, in this case, will guarantee him a daily amount of money worth 1. Let us further assume that the proletarian in a working day produces goods worth 10.From the sale of the goods produced by the proletarian, the capitalist will earn a quantity of money with a value of 10, but hand over a value of 1 to the proletarian in return, thus having an ideal gain of 9 (which, of course, is gross compared to the value required to purchase the raw materials and maintain the means of production).According to Marx, the gap between the value produced by the labour power of the proletarians and the value paid to them by the capitalists is such that it creates an immense and insurmountable disparity. Added to this flawed relationship are two other issues that are equally to the detriment of the proletarian and in favour of the capitalist: the transformation of money into an idol and the alienation produced by industrial labour. If the first concerns the perception of an external object such as money, the second, in contrast, pertains specifically to the proletarian’s way of existence, i.e. one’s conception of oneself. Consider how the artisan, being in possession of the entirety of his own art of production, the means of production and the final product, found himself in his own work. The labourer, on the other hand, is the servant of a production process that he neither knows nor belongs to him (because he merely performs simple, repetitive actions that represent a single piece of that process), which determines the ways and times of his existence throughout the day. Moreover, he possesses neither the means of production nor the final product: he does not find himself in his work, he perceives it as other than himself (alien) and this perception creeps into every aspect of his life (his relationship with others, his relationship with natural reality, his conception of himself as an individual and as a member of society).The time that the proletarian devotes to what is rightfully his as an individual, his affections, his interests, his leisure, is always perceived negatively: it is the time of non-work, which is always regulated by the time-of-work and never vice versa.

     Returning to the subject of ‘critique’, in order to fully understand the ideology consisting of the dominant ideas of a given period, they are to be understood as consequential manifestations of the ‘material process’ of human life, and to analyse how this process can generate them. At the same time, a profound understanding of the world can only come about through an understanding of the process itself and its concrete historical-chronological occurrence. This way of proceeding is similar to the method later used by Friedrich Nietzsche in his On Genealogy of Morality. However, to Marx, an understanding, no matter how deep and in accordance with reality, is useless if it does not aim at its concrete transformation:

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself. [4]

The critique that fulfils its task becomes a material force for the masses, who can use it to accomplish the transformation of the world necessary to eliminate the contradictions that are present in it – contradictions caused by the unjust imbalance between the holders of productive power and those who are powerless cogs in that system. Criticism can only do so if it speaks ad hominem, that is, if it manifests itself as a speech on the concrete man, on man’s real life and theconcrete conditions of his existence and survival (and not on abstractions belonging to the superstructureof this real life, portrayed only as an upside-down picture).

    In concluding this brief summary of Marx’s philosophy, it isenoughto just add that the transformation of which he speaks is not an extraordinary occurrence, in the sense of a complete break from the historical progression of material processes, but it is already embedded in them. The capitalist economic system is by its very own nature doomed to failure and disappearance, thereby allowing the emergence of the communist system. This will not be discussed in detail here, but it is an important point: this transformation is possible because it is already, in some way, foreseen by the historical course of events that has previously occurred. The task of criticismis to get the masses to grasp the theory in order to prepare themselves to accompany, accelerate and welcome the inevitabile transformation: «In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognise our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer — the Revolution». [5]

[1] https://lalivellamagazine.com/en/will-and-representation/

[2]  K. Marx, F. Engels, A Critique of The German Ideology, Translated by Tim Delaney and Bob Schwartz.

[3]  Ivi

[4]  K. Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction, Translated by Annette Jolin and Joseph O’Malley, Cambridge University Press, New York 1970.

[5]  K. Marx, Speech at anniversary of the People’s Paper, in The People’s Paper, April 19, 1856. Robin Goodfellow is a character from Norse tradition, a mischievous elf who appears in William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The image of the ‘old mole’ is taken from Act I, scene V of Hamlet.

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