How can six billion human beings live on this small planet without destroying each other? Which features of humanity make this question so difficult to answer? Which make it possible? Such ways of putting the problem may sound comparatively modern, but some of the greatest thinkers have grappled with more or less the same issues over the past two or three thousand years. Of course, approaches differ, in line with the actual problems of their own time, but several themes constantly reappear through the entire tradition of political thought.
How do individuals relate to the social set-up as a whole? Why do some people hold power over others? Are there innate order-relations between different groups of people, for example, between men and women? Which ways of living might be considered to be good? Is there one which is the best? And how can we gain the knowledge needed to answer questions like these?
For the past few decades, some of these issues have been ruled out of court by authoritative thinkers. Our century begins, not just without answers, but with a raucous chorus of opposition to any attempt to find them. Nowadays, it is fashionable to dismiss such matters as not accessible to systematic thinking. Indeed, for the past couple of decades, the very notion of the True is sneered at, along with the Good and the Beautiful. This declaration of intellectual and moral bankruptcy, has been partly occasioned by the eclipse of Stalinism, and the consequent conviction that ‘Marxism is dead’. But it is actually a symptom of much deeper aspects of life at the start of the twentieth-first century.
I want to try to look at Marx’s ideas in relation to this tradition of political thought. But to attempt this, it is first necessary to distinguish clearly between the ideas of Marx and ‘Marxism’. The Marxists – Marx did not count himself one of them! – dogmatically refused to grapple with questions like these. In general, the would-be followers of Marx thought he was engaged in setting up ‘models’ of society, or of economics, or politics, or history. When they (I ought honestly to say: ‘we’!) claimed that Marx’s works were scientific, this generally meant something like the natural sciences, in which ‘theories’ or ‘hypotheses’ yielded predictions, which had then to be checked against empirical data. These theoretical models, it was said, allowed us to gain knowledge of the mechanics of revolution, and the ‘laws’ which governed the transition from one social order to the next.
A single tentative metaphor of Marx was turned into a sort of historical machine, in which an economic basis, pushed forward by the development of productive forces, in turn ‘caused’ changes in an ideological-political superstructure. Ideas were ‘determined’ by ‘material conditions’. Since this presumably included the ideas of Marxism, this led to difficulties. ‘Marxism’ set out its doctrine of social development, pretended to justify it by appeal to its own special ‘scientific world outlook’, drawing its idea of socialism as a corollary. But how did it know that this ‘outlook’ was true?
A ‘Marxist’ theory of politics went along with this mechanical view: the individuals who make up the ruling class are determined to defend their interests against those they exploit, and they are ready to use violent means where necessary. The State was then said to be ‘nothing but’ their instrument for this purpose. ‘Revolution’ simply meant smashing up this instrument, and establishing a new one, just changing the form of state power. ‘Socialism’, largely identified with state ownership, was the next ‘mode of production’ on a linear historical agenda. The conception of revolution which flourished in Marxist circles thus centred, not on the idea of liberation, but on the concept of power. In its Leninist form, Marxism seized upon some of Marx’s formulations, for instance, the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, and transformed them into justifications for new, oppressive political structures. The phrase ‘workers’ state’ became current in Marxist-Leninist circles, even before Stalin had revealed its totalitarian content. The idea was that the transition to socialism would begin when this new form of state power – later revealed to be a pseudonym for the Party – had firmly replaced the old one, and industry was taken into its control.
Even while Marx was still alive, his central notion of ‘general human self-emancipation’ had become almost incomprehensible to his devoted followers. When some of his earlier writings became generally available in the 1950s and 1960s, it was hard to see how they could be fitted into the ‘Marxist’ framework, so ‘Marxists’ dodged this difficulty by separating a ‘Young Marx’ from an ‘Old Marx’, the latter being the ‘scientific’ one. When the Grundrisse, written when Marx was forty years old, were studied, and found to have the same outlook as the Paris Manuscripts, this escape-route was effectively blocked. It would not be overstating the situation to say that, right down to the present day, the ‘Marxists’ have been among the most direct and bitter opponents of the ideas of Karl Marx. Above all, Marx’s actual conceptions of human self-emancipation leading to a free association had completely disappeared.
In reality, Karl Marx seeks to construct neither a Utopian ‘vision’ of what the world ought to be like, nor a ‘scientific’ ‘theory of history’. His aim is no less than universal human freedom, our self-liberation, and, as we shall see, this is something no theory and no mechanical model could ever comprehend. He conceives of communism (or socialism – for him, the words are interchangeable) as ‘a free association of producers’, a ‘truly human society’, where ‘humanity’ means the process of free social creation and self-creation, ‘the free development of individualities’. At the heart of self-creation are social labour, material and spiritual, individual and collective, which have been developing for millennia, but which have yet to be liberated from ‘alienation’, the distortions and falsifications associated with private property and state power.
Antagonism between the material interests of individuals, between classes, and between each of these and the collective public life, stand in the way of a life ‘worthy of and appropriate to our human nature’. Socialism means the task of progressively transcending these age-old antagonisms, making the ‘free development of each’ the basis for ‘the free development of all’. So socialist revolution does not just imply a change of regime, or a new economic system, but ‘the alteration of humans on a mass scale’, through their own conscious activity. Humanity must now consciously confront its major task, and already possesses the material conditions for its accomplishment, that is to learn to live without either private property or State power.
Individuals become part of the history of society’s metabolic exchange with nature in the course of their productive, that is, their creative activity. In this process, we change our relationships with each other, and change ourselves, collectively and individually striving to realise our potential for freedom. However, within the existing social order, founded upon the atomised institutions of private property, we are rarely conscious of what we are doing. Living fragmented lives, estranged from each other and from ourselves, we have fabricated a casing around ourselves which denies freedom, and that means our humanity. We ourselves have constructed the forms of antagonism, oppression and exploitation, the very antitheses of free creation, enclosing us like suits of armour. Individuals treat each other – and themselves – as if they were things, mere means to further ‘self-interest’.
Where what is good for some is bad for others, the possibility of true community is continually being destroyed, both in practice and in theory. This is the outcome of private property, and especially private ownership of means of production. What belongs to me cannot belong to you. The products of social labour become attached to particular individuals, who often have played no part in their creation, or of the creation of anything at all. If the needs of the community clash with the needs of its individual components it is impossible to be socially and individually self-governing, that is, to be free. Labour itself, their ‘life-activity’, comes to be alien to the labourers, a mere means to ‘make a living’.
There is a continual struggle of humanity against this inhumanity, and this is what shows itself in the antagonisms between individuals, between social classes and between nations. Marx identifies the struggle of the proletariat, the producers of wealth who are oppressed and exploited, against the power of capital which they themselves create, with the movement which would emancipate humanity as a whole. Their labour, their very life-activity as human beings, is estranged from them. They can win their collective fight against this alien power only if they take control over their own human nature. Thus they potentially challenge all forms of oppression and exploitation. This movement must transcend private property, which Marx understands as the perceptible expression of the fact that man becomes objective for himself and at the same time becomes to himself a strange and inhuman object.
Correspondingly, the transcendence of private property means ‘the perceptible appropriation for and by man of the human essence and of human life, of objective man, of human achievements.’
Marx also sees communism as the transcendence of the State, as individual production and public life cease to be separate, antagonistic processes. The claim of the State to act on behalf of individual lives, ruling over them for their own collective good, is false, he declares. When the State performs its functions, like punishing crime, sanctioning morality, or waging war, its pretence to act for everyone is a lie. In reality, the State is an illusory surrogate for the ‘true community’, for, in a world where relations between people are ruled by the exchange of private property, the community cannot operate directly as a single entity. Socialist revolution means smashing this power and releasing human potential in a community of freely-developing individual subjects.
But how can we know all this? How can we acquire the knowledge of how to live humanly? If ideas are generated through the life-activities of individuals, and these activities are alienated, how can we find the truth? How can we even talk about a new way of living with the language of the old? Is the new society just a variant of the old one? Or is it a matter of a Utopian ‘vision’, to be imposed in some fashion on the world?
‘Marxism’ had a sort of answer, not very different in form from the kind of solution attempted by the old Utopians: those in the know would provide the necessary ‘leadership’.
Marx’s answer is quite different, of course. As he put it in a letter to Ruge 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 it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.
Socialism is not a set of opinions or doctrines, arguing from personal feelings to a vision of a better future. Those who have tried to build a socialist movement on such foundations have failed. It has to be conscious of itself, to comprehend itself, to know itself as arising from the history and structure of the existing order. Marx’s aim is to derive the nature of socialism and thus of bourgeois society from his critique of the philosophical tradition, a critique whose criterion is ‘social humanity’. This is what he meant by making socialism into a science.
Marx’s conception of critique is central to all his work. At any rate from about 1843 onwards, what he means by it is something quite precise. The critique of a science means to show that its fundamental assumptions and categories are expressions of an inhuman way of life. Negating these assumptions, scientifically and in practice, make it possible to preserve what is human about it. The clearest illustration is his ‘critique of religion’, which is ‘the premise of all critique’. Marx is not concerned merely to follow ‘irreligious criticism’, by arguing against the truth of religious belief. Instead, his aim is to uncover the roots of such belief in the actual lives of individuals, and to reveal its meaning in their oppression and misery. Religion is then seen to be ‘the heart of a heartless world’, and the way is opened for the overthrow of those inhuman conditions to which it is the response.
Marx’s entire life’s work is the critique of the highest forms of established knowledge, so as to get to the heart of the struggle of humanity for its emancipation. How else is it possible to get beyond the horizons of existing society?
In an important remark in Capital, Marx explains that
(r)eflection on the forms of social life, hence also scientific analysis of these forms, takes a course directly opposite to their actual development. Reflection begins post festum, and therefore with the results of the process of development ready to hand.
These forms ‘already possess the fixed quality of natural forms of social life before man seeks to give an account, not of their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but of their content and meaning.’ Marx’s critique is directed at the highest expression of this ‘content and meaning’. It is significant that the paragraph containing this sentence leads directly to the characterisation of political economic categories as ‘mad’ [verrücke]. While ordinary thinking does not question these forms, science tries to give a consistent account of the world as a rational structure. But bourgeois society is not a rational whole. Seen humanly, it is crazy to live like this. Marx, to break through the natural appearance of existing economic forms, allows the theoretical results of political economy to clash with what is self-evidently human. Thus his critique of the science which glorifies what exists, merges with the practical movement of workers who ‘know’ – without benefit of science – that they are humans being treated as things. Their suffering expresses the necessity of a revolutionary change. But that is not enough: it also requires the critique of economic science to get to grips with its true cause.
So Marx’s critique of political economy, the only part of his work he came anywhere near to completing, is not a ‘criticism of capitalism’. It aims to give an account of economic life under the power of capital, by refusing to accept uncritically the categories of political economy which express this power. Precisely because these categories accurately represent the essential structure of private property, they hide the inhumanity, the ‘craziness’, of its essence. What the best political economists can only present as the realm of freedom and equality, turns out to be the arena of inequality, oppression and exploitation. This includes, of course, the economic interventions of a bureaucratic State, which some people later misnamed ‘socialism’.
Marx shows how uncritical acceptance of the ‘natural’ appearance of bourgeois private property, which is seen at its very best in classical political economy, disguised and perverted the human content of all systematic thinking. This is what Marx, always conscious of the parallels between God and money, calls ‘fetishism’. Political economy, by definition, has to accept the form of appearance of bourgeois social relations, founded upon ‘thing-like relations between persons and social relations between things.’ Working ‘behind the backs of the producers’, the exchange of private property had necessarily led to the development of money and, from this, of capital, an all-pervasive, oppressive, impersonal power, which links individuals together by setting them against each other. Once it is a going concern, capital produces and reproduces itself.
Wherever labour-power is bought and sold, what is already implied by the simple exchange of commodities for one another comes into the open: individual humans are treating each other and themselves as if they were objects. On the other hand, the creative potential of social humanity is made to appear to be the productive power of a subject: capital. Thus relations dominated by capital engender forms of thinking which disguise the oppressive, exploitative character of these relations. Political economy, even at its best, took these false appearances for granted, and only through its critique could the inhumanity and insanity of money and of the buying and selling of labour-power be revealed and overcome. Marx thus could show how, so long as it is dominated by the forms of the market, people’s thinking will confuse their own and other people’s character as active subjects with mere objects, means with ends.
How is it possible for humanity as a whole to achieve the consciousness which will enable it to free itself from the bonds of private ownership? For Marx, this was the most practical question of all. A remark in Grundrisse helps to see the way that Marx attempts to answer it:
(I)ndividuals enter into relation with each other only as determinate individuals. These objective relations of dependence, in contrast to the personal ones, also appear in such a way that the individuals are now ruled by abstractions whereas they were previously dependent on one another. (The objective relationship of dependence is nothing but the social relations independently confronting the seemingly independent individuals, ie their own reciprocal relations of production which have acquired an existence independent of and separate from them.) Yet the abstraction or idea is nothing but the theoretical expression of those material relationships which dominate the individuals.
Entities like State, law, money, family, which appear to individuals to be part of the furniture of the universe, are actually the product of human activity, but this is hidden from them. The categories of theoretical science polish up these entities, beautifying them and presenting them as beyond criticism. But this is only possible because the forms of living expressed in these categories are abstract, separated from the individuals who live inside them.
But this is the nature of theory as such. It is inherent in every theory that the theoretician is separated from the object theorised, what is usually referred to as ‘objectivity’. This false way of thinking is a true expression of a false – inhuman – way of living, of social forms which are ‘alienated’ from humanity. Thus every effort to establish an ‘objective social science’, as if the scientists were not themselves in the picture, is essentially an expression of humanity’s estrangement from itself. When Marx claimed that his work was scientific, it was in a special sense which comprised the critique of every kind of social science.
Marx’s critical science necessarily included self-critique – something of which theoretical science is incapable. This is demonstrated by the futile attempts to construct a ‘theory of knowledge’. If this also a theory, it must be a viciously circular ‘theory of theory’. If it is not, then it is just one more step in an infinite regress. Marx’s critique of ‘theoretical’ or dogmatic science stripped away its hidden assumptions. By its very character, theory necessarily assumed that private property, money, family, state and the enforced division of labour, since they certainly existed, were natural aspects of human life. Marx’s critique of social science revealed the contrary: the categories with which any theory operated were unquestionable, and thus inevitably forms of oppression. The possibilities for truly human relationships have developed only inside, and in opposition to, these forms. Since we ourselves have constructed these prisons in the course of human history, we humans can – with difficulty – break our way out of them. Since these forms are abstractions, which appear as ideas, breaking out of them must be a conscious act, for which critique opens the way. There could never be a theory of freedom. Social and political philosophy operates in this world of abstractions; the critique of such science shows the way to break them up.
Hegel’s work is crucial for all of Marx’s ideas. Hegel’s system, as a whole and in each of its parts, tried to reconcile contradictory particulars, by showing that they made up a universal whole. Kant, in summing up the Enlightenment, put his finger on its fundamental problem, by turning the spotlight of Reason on Reason itself, trying to show its limits. Hegel pursued this question much further. Knowledge of the world and of the knower could not be separated, for they were both in the world. The categories with which we gained that knowledge arose as forms of world history. Knowledge had to become self-knowledge, and Hegel’s system claims to contain its own beginning and end.
Faced with the conflicts and confusions which convulsed Europe after the French Revolution, Hegel aimed to unify and reconcile them in a unified and all-embracing system of thought. Unification operated in two directions. On the one hand, the contradictory aspects of modern society had to form an organic whole. On the other hand, the stages of development of Western philosophy, summed up in its categories, formed a single process, called Mind or Spirit.. The movement of world history was identical with this development of thought. In the unfolding of the Idea, each stage of development was ‘its own time expressed in thought’. Hegel had shown that social life did not develop in line with some ‘natural’ characteristics with which humans were endowed, but was the outcome of their own work and the struggle to comprehend this work. The development of philosophy was thus the movement of freedom, as humans became conscious that the world which confronted them was indeed the outcome of their own work. For instance, the antagonisms between individuals in ‘civil society’ must be contained by a rational higher power, the State, which seeks to represent the needs of the collective activity of society. Hegel calls this ‘Objective Spirit’.
Marx’s critique of Hegel’s system was not a complete, once-and-for-all ‘epistemological break’. He returned to the problem again and again throughout his lifetime. Since Hegel had pulled the whole tradition of philosophy into a single system, Marx’s critique of Hegel confronted that tradition as a whole. When Hegel revealed the element of reconciliation to be at the heart of philosophy as such, Marx agreed with him, but saw this as the proof that philosophy had to be negated. Marx demonstrates that neither social antagonism nor the State’s response to it were logically necessary, as Hegel alleged, but expressed only a particular stage of historical development. Transcending the antagonisms of modern society implied, not a new philosophical synthesis, but a practical revolution in which the State and its basis in private property would be transcended. Marx sees that taking ‘the standpoint of human society and social humanity’, that is, the standpoint of communism, is the only way to grasp what society is. Thus what his philosophical predecessors faced as their central problem, Marx takes as his starting-point.
So, before Marx could begin his critique of socialism and of political economy, he had a great deal of preliminary work to do. To understand the limitation of the political emancipation for which the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had fought so hard, he had to tackle the nature of politics itself. Although he never published any work dealing specifically with the State, his study of political philosophy, made in the years before 1844, was the essential prelude to all of his later work. In the celebrated 1859 Preface to his Critique of Political Economy, he explains the importance of this study as follows:
The first work which I undertook to dispel the doubts assailing me was a critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law …. My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term ‘civil society’; that the anatomy of this civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy.
This refers mainly to the manuscript Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Although Marx wrote this in 1843, it only became available in the 1950s and 1960s. It deals with a section of Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), and so was undertaken before he had read much about communism and before he had begun to see the proletariat as the force for revolutionary change. Why was the Philosophy of Right so important? It was because in this, the last book Hegel published in his life-time, was epitomised the entire tradition of political thought, stretching back to ancient Greece. When he had finished his critique, Marx could understand that private property, whose laws were sought by political economy, formed the basis on which political life was founded, and that a truly human society implied the transcendence of both property and the State.
Marx had convinced himself that all philosophy – philosophical thinking as such – is an expression of alienated, oppressive, exploitative, and thus inhuman relations. Hegel had shown that philosophy traced the path of world history. Now Marx’s critique of philosophy could reveal that it was an alienated expression of the course of development of alienated life. In the tradition, important thinkers tried sincerely to further the cause of human development and human emancipation. The works of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and others probe deeply into the problems of state power and contain indispensable insights into the nature of social forms,.
But all of these great thinkers began, tacitly or openly, with certain assumptions. For each of them, private property and political power are necessary features of the life of humans. The age-old separation of mental and manual labour, the division between ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’, is built into their fundamental categories. Whatever the subjective wishes of the philosopher, philosophical thought must take it for granted that relationships between humans are necessarily antagonistic, that some people must have power over others, and that there has to be a division between masters and slaves, rulers and ruled. It is therefore understandable that, in spite of their varied standpoints, the philosophers were unanimous in rejecting any possibility that the whole of a community could govern itself. Democracy would inevitably degenerate into mob-rule, they all believed, for inequality, the essence of private property, implied that poor people would take away the property of the rich if they had the chance.
The philosophers believed that, to penetrate the mysteries of social life, and to interpret our own collective actions, you have to call in the specialists in thinking – namely themselves. Of course, the questions they asked themselves were vital ones: What is Justice? What is the good life for humanity? What is humanity? How does humanity relate to nature? But they did not think that the answers for which they struggled could be made available to the mass of the population. They had to be communicated to those who governed – the ‘Philosopher-King’, or the ‘Prince’, or the ‘Magistrate’. At times when absolute rulers went out of fashion, ‘the best people’, (aristoi) were the ones to talk to, and then the owners of large-scale property. However, over the centuries, attempts to get these rulers to put the results of philosophical thought into practice, met with little success. When the forms known mistakenly in modern times as ‘representative democracy’ came to be the ideal, forms designed to accommodate the needs of community to those of private property, political philosophy as such ceased to exist, being replaced by various kinds of ‘political science’, the technology of power.
If the philosophers saw the conflict between individual life and the life of the community as inevitable, they were left with a central mystery: how was human society possible? Given the antagonisms which necessarily accompanied private property and political power, how could individual humans unite in one community? Very broadly, there were two ways to look at the problem: either individuals were moulded by society; or pre-existing individuals came together into a community. On the first view, society is an organism, whose organs were the individuals who lived in it. In general, they could never know that their lives actually conformed with the laws governing the whole social body.
On the second view, the individuals are independent atoms, and the interactions resulting from their clashing wills and interests move the whole machine along. In the main, political economists fell into the second group. Neither view, neither ‘organicism’ nor ‘individualism’, allows the possibility of a consciously self-governing community, in which individuals can freely develop. If the community is an organism, it is not possible for any of its component parts to know anything about it as a whole. If it is a conglomerate of independent individuals, no one of them will ever be able to consider the whole as a unity.
The confusion which resulted from these opposing views of society was not the result of false logic, but expressed the real contradictions of alienated social life. However, the philosophers themselves believed that philosophy was needed to make sense of this conflict, to find the necessary categories and sort them into the correct order. The problem is repeatedly encountered in various forms throughout the history of philosophy: whole and parts, universal and individual, substance and accidents keep cropping up as antinomies. Philosophy is thus itself a symptom of the basic contradiction of society. That is why the critique of the categories of philosophy was needed before Marx could uncover the underlying contradiction. Philosophy appeared on the scene to attempt to solve the basic mystery. Marx showed that this struggle, philosophy’s very existence, was the highest expression of what was actually a problem of practical life.
Now we can see the radical nature of Marx’s critical reworking of the tradition. Being sure that the mass of people had to and would be able to govern themselves, his answers were addressed, not to kings and princes, but to all of us. After the scalpel of critique had done its work of dissection on the body of philosophy, this knowledge could be put into the hands of those who are without power or property. To actualise the wisdom of the philosophers, the propertiless and powerless ones had to abolish both private property and State power, making possible the free association and free development of all humans as social individuals. In his earlier writings, Marx called this idea ‘true democracy’. Later, (to avoid misunderstandings!), he called it ‘communism’: the real movement to transform social life was the struggle to ‘win the battle of democracy’, through the transcendence of private property. Only when private property had ceased to set individuals against each other could they unite in a free, self-governing community.
The ideas of some important figures in the history of political thought. Each great thinker tried to work out how the community could co-exist with the particular form that private property took in his own time. We must begin by looking at the two central texts which laid the foundation for the entire tradition of Western thought, at the time when Athenian democracy was breaking up: Plato’s Republic, and the Politics of Aristotle. When slavery and money were eroding the old forms of community, the meaning of Justice became a major problem. Under the new conditions, it was no longer clear what kind of constitution would make possible the good life.
Thinkers who followed Plato and Aristotle, notably the Stoics, turned away from considering the structure of political life, towards the inner life of the individual. Later, as feudalism was entering its centuries of decline, the study of Greek philosophy was taken up by Christian scholars, trying to find a rational foundation for Christian theology. But, while the name of the pagan Aristotle was revered in the Church, a very different content was given to his ideas.
Next, we jump to the beginning of the modern era. As bourgeois economic forms fragmented society into self-interested atoms, the Good was replaced with individual feelings and opinions, and politics became a matter of statecraft. The State was now seen as a centre of power. The philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries vigorously rejected Scholasticism, and Aristotle along with it. In Rousseau and Kant, the contradictions of the modern forms of property begin to show themselves.
We examine Hegel’s Philosophy of Right as the conscious culmination and summary of this entire movement. Then Marx’s critique of Hegel’s conception of the State can be seen in its historical context, and as the real beginning of his life’s work. Finally, we ask what our investigation has told us about Marx’s own conception of revolution. and its relevance for present day struggles.