The German Ideology was written fairly early in Karl Marx’s career (1846). It was never published in Marx’s lifetime but served, as he later observed, to distinguish Engels and himself from the dominant idealist philosophy of his time.
Marx wrote The German Ideology because he believed that the idealists were wrong. The idealists were contemporaries of his such as the Young Hegelians and “true” or “German” socialists. For the Young Hegelians, history can be understood in terms of the journey of consciousness towards self-realisation. Consequently, they thought that the task of philosophy was to awaken and heighten people’s consciousness. However, Marx rejected this idea. He pointed out that if you do not have enough to eat then before you can consciously share in the dynamic of the universe you have to liberate from the soil enough food to live on. The “German socialists” believed in a poetic often romantic view of living, which avoided any discussion of the “vulgar” masses. They believed that the answer to poverty lay in reaching a spiritual plane in which the need to eat simply was not an issue. In The German Ideology, Marx reveals their misconception, namely, that questions concerning human development and happiness are resolvable by raising consciousness whatever the particular material circumstances. But, of course, historically, and up to Marx’s own era, material circumstances made it impossible for people to forget subsistence living, in order to contemplate the so-called higher pursuits of the German or true socialists.
Marx pointed out that it is the prevailing mode of production, as humans attempt to satisfy human need, that determines consciousness. He believed that humanity as a whole had the potential to develop, and he therefore rejected the mode of production, capitalism, which was contemporary to him. Under capitalism, the proletariat do not know that their situation is avoidable; they do not know how the system works and how the institution of private property makes all that they do as workers alien to them. Their “species being”, which is their capacity for loving, social production, is alienated from them because it becomes, as abstract labour, the private property of others. Therefore, The German Ideology advocates that private property be eradicated so that people can, “regain control of exchange, production and the mode of their relationships” (Marx, 1965, p.170) In the part of The German Ideology on Feuerbach, Marx clarifies how we are to approach definitions of social reality by a consideration of material circumstances. Marx shows that heightened consciousness is not the answer to hunger. In the example he uses to illustrate this, the environment of a fish is a river or expanse of water, but the pollution of this expanse will kill the fish. Here the fish has reacted in the most extreme of ways, by dying. So too with humans: they develop, continue, or die in response to their environment. Just as the fish is killed or forced to develop against its nature, the social reality of Marx’s era revealed that there was something wrong and unnecessary about the way most people lived. He asks how we are to organise life so that people may live according to their species-being?
His answer is that there is something wrong with the present state of things and that we should do something to realise something better; to make real what is our Good. Our Good is living according to our species-being and it is the ethic of communism that captures this value, by promoting social relationships based on loving production for others. It is a natural, hence scientific, fact that we have an essence and in turn this essence tells us something about how we should live. A tree for example will develop best when given water and sunlight, because it is the tree’s essence to develop in these circumstances. It is not a big step (though a fiercely contested one) from here to say that the tree ought to develop according to its essence. Indeed, like Socrates’ insistence that in the light of understanding we cannot help doing the right thing, Marx’s solution is also compelling. If humans are social and are capable of using the resources of the planet in such a way as to promote loving production for others then this ought to be done. Thus, for Marx, philosophy is action (or “praxis”) and not merely, as Hegel would have it, part of the journey of consciousness towards self-realisation. He demands that freedom should be established in society, and that individuals should be enabled to live their lives according to their “species-being”.
Although Marx is a materialist, there seems to be political idealism in his belief that humans not only understand reality and the processes that move reality, but can apply their best thoughts in order to change reality according to the human good. This is the ideal made real. It moves from a consideration of what is the case to a consideration of what should be the case. The ideal as elucidated by philosophers is abstract; Marx wishes to make it real. This is his humanism, that it’s not some great spirit or God in whom we place our hope of worldly Good, it is rather human relationships here and now that decide whether we are happy and free. It follows that it is not God who enslaves me, but rather my owner, if I am a chattel-slave, or the capitalist owner of my labour-power, if I am a proletarian. Of course, it is this that explains why even though we have a sufficiently developed mode of production to provide for all human need, we still have rich and poor. Already in The German Ideology, Marx knew that capitalism was wrong. But it was not until later that he discovered the wrong in the wage-relationship, the economic relationship between capitalist and worker.
Perhaps the major attraction of The German Ideology to Marx’s readers is the exposition of the materialist theory of history that he borrows from Hegel. Hegel’s theory of change in history rested on the inexorable movement of opposites into higher synthesis which resolved the opposition. Logically it takes the pattern of a ‘thesis’ which is opposed by an ‘antithesis’, then the two are brought together as a ‘synthesis’. The new synthesis becomes a new thesis and the process continues. Hegel applied this theory to many areas. It rests, however, on the view of Hegel that history is the progressive realisation of the perfect idea. Whatever is real is rational, in the context of what has been realised so far. Thus, there may be a whole host of countries and governments, each rightly claiming a certain rational element, but the process of history towards real ideas will resolve all these oppositions into one higher government or country which will be perfect.
For Hegel, the philosopher could only analyse the progression of the ‘rational’ so far. The philosopher did not have the power to locate the future development of the goal, but it will be rational, and the theory of history will show how it happened. Hegel’s theory is the high point of idealism and so people often ask how Marx can have a materialist view of history and still be indebted to Hegel.
Marx inverts Hegel. He believed that Hegel had the structure right but the content was upside down. For Hegel, the progression of ideas was fundamental, but for Marx it was the fact that everything occurred in a material reality that was significant. Marx borrows the structure of Hegel’s dialectic and applies it to modes of production.
Marx argues that history is a science. It is the only science we know because it is the only thing that we are directly involved within. Written history is the past from a human perspective. Now where Hegel displays historical facts and shows how an idea is emerging into social reality, Marx takes the mode of production of an epoch and shows how it has shaped history and human consciousness. Reality then is firmly the product of material circumstances or as Marx and Engels wrote “consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness”. History as it is written down, is the history of what humans have been conscious of, but this does not mean that human consciousness has driven history.
Marx and Engels state their view of world history in The German Ideology, in the section on Feuerbach, “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. . . Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion, or by anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. . . We set out from the real active men. . . real 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…. Men who develop their material production and their material relationships alter their thinking and the products of their thinking along with their real existence. Consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness, (Marx, 1965, pp. 160,164). The materialist conception of history tells us that people are moved by forces which they cannot up to now control, most importantly, the need to work. Now, while these forces are the creation of people and should be an ally to human flourishing and not its enemy, as enemies they alienate. So long as humans are determined by distortions of what should authentically determine their life, they are alienated.
Can things be changed? Marx thought that it was inevitable that socialism and then communism would occur. The Russian style of communism and the Chinese style were not predicted by Marx, but he was right in thinking something revolutionary would happen. In retrospect, Marxists could say that Marx was affected by distortions and thus the details of the revolution were wrong; recent history has seen the fall of Russian socialism and the Chinese style of communism is changing rapidly. Changes to capitalism have occurred, but capitalism has made sure that socialist experiments are piece-meal and short lived. Capitalism attempts to do this by reifying social consciousness in order to preserve its ability to increase profit. Yet the idea remains that as a global economy occurs, so too a global identification between workers could occur and perhaps, in periods of “bust” the bargaining power of globally organised workers will galvanise a revolutionary movement.
Reflecting upon the society that we have in place at the moment and then contrasting that with the society that Marx favours, makes it incumbent, for Marxists, that the fall of “Socialist” regimes does not negate Marxist debate and action. At the moment, capitalist countries sell arms to Africa for profit. At the moment, there is a gap between rich and poor. At the moment, we are aggressively exploiting the natural resources of the planet. Reflection upon what Marx is saying – that capitalism has caused this, that capitalism is based upon profit and that the ethic of capitalism is ever increased expropriation of profit and not the development of human beings according to their species-being, leads many to the conclusion that capitalism must still be abolished.
Marx’s alternative is freedom. Emancipation will realise a future in which every person will have their basic needs fulfilled, where people can develop according to their species-being. Capitalism forces people to develop as profit makers, while emancipation from this will allow them to develop as human beings. This is moral because a person’s essence is social, and unless all people develop according to their potential they will not be satisfied. A full realisation of human potential will be achieved after a revolution of the mode of production along socialist lines and the transition to communism. This is not however a “True” or “German Socialist” utopia of raised consciousness. Rather, it is a society in which everyone will have to work to realise the human good. It differs from capitalism in that development will occur in response to human need not to the non-human desire for profit through capitalism.