German Ideology

German Ideology

2011 Reprint of 1939 Edition. Parts I & III of "The German Ideology". Full facsimile of the original edition, not reproduced with Optical Recognition Software. Originally published by the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in 1939. "The German Ideology" was written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels circa 1846, but published later. The original edition was divided into thr...

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Title:German Ideology
Author:Karl Marx
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Edition Language:English

German Ideology Reviews

  • Narendra

    if someone wants to save the humanity than u can't ignore marx

  • Trevor

    This is interesting, not least because it is one of the earliest formulations of Marx’s understanding of historical materialism and his breaking away from both Hegel’s idealism and Feuerbach’s naïve materialism. The book starts with a very useful editor’s introduction where this work is located within both Marx’s and Engels’s developing understanding of what they were coming to view as the motive force of history. That is, the class struggle. What is interesting here is how frequently they refer

    This is interesting, not least because it is one of the earliest formulations of Marx’s understanding of historical materialism and his breaking away from both Hegel’s idealism and Feuerbach’s naïve materialism. The book starts with a very useful editor’s introduction where this work is located within both Marx’s and Engels’s developing understanding of what they were coming to view as the motive force of history. That is, the class struggle. What is interesting here is how frequently they reference literature and the arts, and not always to praise the accomplishments of the high arts, but often to frame their understanding of the potential of a future human society. Life under ‘communism’ is sketched in what can only be called the briefest of outlines – “in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”. They make it clear that the division of labour, particularly as it has been perfected under capitalism, does much to make the vast majority of human lives almost unbearable, so the key defining characteristic of the communist society is the breaking of this division of labour. The unbearable nature of the division of labour was particularly true of the cruelly deskilled work that was being undertaken in the factories of their day – but one hardly has to travel to the third world (where most of our clothes, electrical equipment and such are made) to see people reduced to half-lives at the beck and call of the division of labour. In this sense, art as a means of human expression – even for people who would never want to call themselves ‘artists’ is presented as a pathway to a fuller, more human life.

    The basic ideas framing the Marxist vision are that our material conditions are the foundation upon which the rest of our modes of being – whether they be religious, philosophical, social, legal, artistic and so on – are determined. There is plenty of scope for variety, so that two countries could well have the same levels of development of their productive forces (economic well-being), but still have very different legal and cultural systems. All the same, there are things that are more or less closed off to us once we move beyond certain periods of economic development and other things that are impossible until certain economic pre-conditions have been obtained. I’m not going to use their examples, but rather I’m going to use some that I’ve been thinking about recently.

    In this Marx says that Epic poetry is one of the things that is closed off once we reach a certain level of economic development – that it makes perfect sense as a form in Ancient Greece, but wouldn’t really be possible today. I would rather look at something like architecture. Many people believe we don’t today have the technology to build a pyramid. This is basically nonsense. But what is interesting is that we would never dream of building a pyramid today. Why? Well, because there are so many much more interesting things that we do build today, that building a huge mound of rocks is never going to be something that interests us doing again. Perhaps since we have become capable of destroying real mountains we have become less interested in building puny, artificial mountains of our own. The Ancient Egyptians built pyramids, they are breathtaking, they are remarkable, but they were also at the far end of their technical abilities. We are able to send a camera into space and take images of the dawn of time, we are able to smash atoms to discover the mass of the Higgs Boson. I think that means we win, if there is such a thing as winners and losers with this stuff.

    The Egyptians didn’t pose questions about the mass of the Higgs Boson, or anything like that. Why? Because there would have needed to have asked so many other questions first and all of those prior questions required strides forward in the economic underpinnings of society before they could even be contemplated.

    Perhaps a better example is the one given in Margaret Wertheim in ‘The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace’ where she discusses how our notions of space completely changed with the Renaissance and perspective painting. And this is interesting for a number of reasons. Not only would such painting be impossible before the Renaissance – where we simply did not have the mathematics necessary or the understanding of optics or the explosion of painting techniques available to make such ‘realism’ possible, but this change in tools that became available to us with the rapid growth in human productiveness helped to fundamentally change the way we viewed the world – literally changed how we see. It did much to create modern humans – that is, by having a single ‘right’ place to stand and view a painting – something that was completely new because previously paintings were designed to be displayed in particular spaces and therefore designed to be seen from anywhere within that entire space. Now, there were right places to view from and therefore a right way to view – a privileged perspective. This did much to encourage ideas of the individual viewer standing in the right location to view and so to create the basis for ‘individuals’. Shakespeare did much the same by switching drama from a depiction of things that happen to various characters to bringing to the fore the motivations characters had for particular actions. Rather than being required to act according to the wishes of the gods, characters like MacBeth struggle with their wills, struggle with the ethical problems their desires and their morality throw into conflict. This ‘turn to the individual’ as actor and as creator of their destiny fits rather well with the early modern notions of the new and rising class – what Marx would call the Bourgeoisie.

    What is interesting here is that changes in the economic structuring of society, brought about by the development of the productive forces – new technologies, new modes of work, new divisions of labour – all contributed to new ways of seeing the world, and, equally importantly, new understandings of what is ‘true’. In this book Marx points out that the ruling classes always endorse certain ideas, certain ways of understanding the world, and those ‘ways of seeing’ by the ruling classes become the ruling ideas in society too. So much so that all previous ways of seeing the world – whether of slave societies in ancient times or hierarchical structures where everyone is in their fixed location as associated with medieval times, become bizarre and incomprehensible, and, despite there clearly not having been, say, capitalist ways of understanding the world in these previous times, our commonsense notions assume there really must have been. When Fukuyama claims ‘the end of history’ he is not merely looking forward, but making claims about the past too. All ruling ideas become universalist, they all become ‘commonsense’, they all become hegemonic. There is no need for conspiracy here, just self-interest. There was an amusing piece in the newspaper the other day by an apologist of the free market

    which spent a lot of time criticising the Pope’s naïve views on economics. How can the Pope not know that greed, as exemplified by the gross inequalities produced under capitalism, is actually the greatest boon to humanity? How can he be so foolish as to want to restrict the free operation of the market, when it has proven itself the only means of eradicating poverty? He is clearly a victim of that rubbish from Piketty – what we really need is more inequality, as it is the only thing that motivates people and turns the wheels of progress. Should we be surprised that such ideas end up getting printed in our leading newspapers? Newspapers that are owned by an ever-decreasing number of very rich robber barons? Perhaps we should rather be surprised there are places like Good Reads where some views can be expressed more or less without censorship – well, until you threaten the profits of Amazon, of course. Let’s not take this freedom stuff too far.

    This ends work with a series of short texts by Marx – his Thesis on Feuerbach, his Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy, but one of the sections I found most interesting was his discussion of how important it is to move philosophy away from idle speculation and to see that many questions of ‘truth’ are not really questions for speculation, but rather are inherently practical questions and therefore need to be answered in action and by action.

    I’m unlikely to read the entire work of which this is a selection – much like part 3 of the Manifesto, a lot of what is left out here sounds like too much detail on issues no longer of the least bit of interest – but I can recommend this short version, not least because while it clearly articulates the idea that the economic substructure is the basis for the rest of society – it is hardly put in a way that is as ‘dogmatic’ as some later ‘Marxists’ might have put it.

  • Thandiwe

    I have a soft spot for Marx...he has to be one of the most misread and misunderstood authors in history. I think this text, along with the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, really highlight the emphasis he placed on human consciousness and its intricate connection to the material world and mode of production which (alarmingly) conventional readings of Marx minimize, if not, completely ignore.

  • Alex Billet

    Those looking to garner a basic understanding of what precisely Marx and Engels meant by dialectical materialism must start here. The two authors were profoundly polemical, and like most polemics they are best understood in context. CJ Arthur's introduction provides that context in a way which is chronological and easy to understand.

    Marx and Engels of course started out in the Young Hegelians. The starting point of their break with Hegel's philosophy came in their realization that Hegel's belie

    Those looking to garner a basic understanding of what precisely Marx and Engels meant by dialectical materialism must start here. The two authors were profoundly polemical, and like most polemics they are best understood in context. CJ Arthur's introduction provides that context in a way which is chronological and easy to understand.

    Marx and Engels of course started out in the Young Hegelians. The starting point of their break with Hegel's philosophy came in their realization that Hegel's belief that the state gave citizens their meaning was actually upside down. This holds real material consequence, for if the conversation can just be left at the maintenance of a community before a state's machination it ignores the very real differences within that community. In other words, if primacy is not given to the economic base -- how people manage to survive, as well as create and procure the means to that survival -- then everything else just floats. The state cannot create community on its own out of some kind of ability to create consciousness of that community.

    Arthur's intro goes further in a brief and succinct way: first through Marx writing on

    (equality before the law does not equal absolute equality or the liberation of human potential), the nature of contemporary political constitutions (the distinction between political rights and natural rights, understanding of "liberty" as predicated upon non-interference and therefore the actual

    of man rather than unification). He recounts how Marx insists that the conflict between actual material interests -- resolving them and placing actual equality on the same level as political equality -- requires a resolution between political power and social power. In short, civil society and the state becoming one. In turn, this ends the state's existence as a distinct entity from the masses.

    But how will this resolution and merger be achieved? Arthur spends some time answering this question in a quick section summarizing the arguments of

    . In the previous section, as Arthur points out, Marx never mentions the proletariat. Here, he points out that Marx argued the need for a class whose interests and needs are universal -- i.e. a class whose humanity has been totally stripped from them and therefore has interests in reclamation of that humanity. Only such a class, in civil society but not of civil society, can hope to set civil society and the state on a course toward resolution. Hence the proletariat.

    Arthur then defines alienation -- a key part of understanding humanity's separation from its true nature and its relationship to both civil society and the state, and thus, a key part of Marxist dialectics. Says Arthur: "if one was to attempt a rough definition useful from the point of view of Marxian studies, one could say that alienation was a process whereby a subject suffers from dependence upon an apparently external agency that was originally its own product." This, in a nutshell, is what personifies the contradiction between labor and capital.

    Arthur also takes us through various polemics with other philosophers -- Stirner, Bauer, the "true socialists." But from here, what we need to glean is that ideas are defined by conditions, not the other way round. And therefore, structures of rule and order and law and political power are not understood merely as personifications of ideas but as the results of actual material conditions. Unless one is looking to change those conditions then the ideas will be much less likely to change.

    Now we are finally ready to move from CJ Arthur's introduction to Marx and Engels' actual pamphlet. The authors start by summarizing what the "German ideology" is actually composed of (Feuerbach, Stirner, Bauer, etc). This is best understood as a vague and incomplete pivot off of Hegel's philosophy itself, still very much a matter of how ideas change society rather than how material conditions shape those ideas:

    And yet, if it is the job of the "enlightened" to lead the unenlightened out of the darkness, how do we know that the enlightened are actually enlightened? Marx and Engels are of course giving very much a cursory summary to the ideas of those they're polemicizing against (all of them can only generally be summed up as Young Hegelians) but he gets to the heart of the matter: who will educate the educators? How do we best understand where the ideas come from?

    The authors take some time to go briefly through different productive relations of society, different class systems, examining how human beings have reproduced themselves, and the various forms of "ownership" that have therefore sprung from them. First the tribal society with only the most basic division of labor. Then the communal ownership of tribes that have coalesced into a city or town (due to agricultural innovations); slavery is the main force of production of the primitive surplus here, but it is still subject to a communal ownership and a ruling class whose main function is primarily defined by distribution rather than hoarding of the surplus.

    From there, feudalism, rooted in the country more than the town productively speaking and therefore able to spread wider geographically. In the towns the counterpart to the feudal lord (though often antagonistic) was "corporative property," the feudal organization of trades. Agricultural and mercantile peasantry were the motor of production and therefore the way that humans reproduced themselves. Finally, to capitalism (where all means of production are firmly in the hands of the ruling class and all productive labor is performed by those with absolute lack of control over that labor) and to communism (where the contradiction is resolved).

    Marx and Engels spend time going through this to highlight consciousness, how conceptions of ownership and relationships to ruling blocs, have followed in productive relations. Not the other way round. From there they speak of the "fundamental contradiction of history," namely that humans need to be able to reproduce themselves before history itself can be made, let alone forge the very conception of history. The notion of consciousness itself is predicated upon the very fact that humans must rely on each other to survive, must create a division of labor and begin understanding themselves as distinct from each other in order for the ideas of "individuals" and "community" to have any truck: "man's consciousness of the necessity of associating with the individuals around him is the beginning of the consciousness that he is living in society at all."

    The division of labor -- the parceling out of various kinds of tasks to others which you yourself are reliant upon -- is the seed of alienation. All notions of property are shaped in turn by this division. Simply shifting that conception of property so that we might be more enlightened with said property is not even close to sufficient for the implementation of communism, for resolving the rift between division and actual equality. The authors point out that communism isn't simply a "state of affairs" that might be understood into being, but an actual

    , i.e. the a real shift in relations brought about by another material force in history.

    Seeing that consciousness arises out of productive forces, we can then understand where history as a distinct entity of human existence and temporal process begins to take root. Marx and Engels therefore move on to trace the understanding of history in the epoch of "civil society" -- the grand sum of all productive relations in bourgeois capitalism out of which the modern state arises. The way that separate spheres of existence continue to grow and interact with each other creates a sum totality (though this totality may be ever shifting, and usually is). Again, how powerful and quickly expanding these spheres may be is largely dependent on how much power the actual material and productive forces are behind it:

    Everything else -- conceptions of morality, religion, philosophy, ethics -- springs from this material reality. How they change is dependent largely on how the relations and forces of production change. In other words, the motor of history is not mere ideas, but revolution itself. Great leaps forward come not from idealistic hand-wringing, but from the upheaval of conditions.

    This is what allows dialectical materialism to be such a profoundly

    philosophical and historical outlook. Those who see ideas as the motor of history invariably end up focusing on the ideas of those who are most likely to have their ideas spread wide in the first place: history's so-called "great men." It is interesting how much the Hegelians and their defenders held in common with the spin doctors of the '90s with their "end of history" rhetoric. For the Hegelians, because the state was the ultimate in granting meaning to the masses, because "great ideas" and "pure spirit" now had the platform they supposedly deserved, history had reached its ultimate epoch.

    In their polemics against Feuerbach, Marx and Engels point out that Feuerbach himself considers himself a "communist," but that his sense of the term is warped. Feuerbach is no member of a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow the established order. Rather, for him it is a state of mind (or spirit in a more directly Hegelian sense). Again, this gets it upside down.

    If the productive forces and division of labor are key shapers of ideology, then it follows that different relationships to that labor and its divisions would arise as productive forces evolve. And so Marx and Engels briefly lay out how the division between town and country under feudalism shaped consciousness. Small-scale manufacturing existed in the towns but was largely dominated by the guild system. Artisans dedicated to a certain craft derived their subsistence not through sale of their own products or exchange on the market (though there was a crude market starting to emerge) but through the patronage of guild masters and/or master craftsmen. Ergo their relationship was at once slavish but also much more dedicated and less alienated.

    Come about the fifteenth century, the spread of nascent markets across various borders allowed for the implementation of more factory-like settings. Land enclosures were beginning around this time, and armies were releasing many of their soldiers. These were people without any land or place to root themselves, and thus had no choice but to

    their labor. The products they manufactured went elsewhere, with their existence dependent upon a wage. Conceptions of labor, their relationship to it, and conceptions of property, changed too. Skill and pride in work decreased, alienation increased and the notion of communal property began to fade.

    When the colonies of the "new world" became considerable consumers and resources became necessary to maintain their economic viability, things shifted yet again. Whereas the forces of industrial capitalism first took significant root in England, the changes in trade dynamics forced other countries as well as England to adopt different attitudes toward tariffs, taxes, and industry itself:

    Previous ideologies, religious ideas and moral notions (many of which were unique according to regional needs and custom) were tossed aside or drastically adapted in favor of what was quickly becoming a universal system and universal modes of production. So too was it with the concepts and notions regarding how property should be mediated by the state, or even whether it should be mediated by the state at all!

    Marx and Engels point out that with the dying out of communal/tribal property parceled out by village elders and feudal property rooted in land and the control over it, the state begun to take a larger role in the maintenance of private (i.e. capitalist) property relations.

    The bourgeois are no longer an estate, but a class, organized nationally not regionally (they have to be if they wish to stay relevant in the rise of global trade). They rely on the centralized state more, but in their patronage of it transform its mechanisms of taxation into the entity of state debt. Property relations are less to do with a direct thru-line between rulers and ruled, less about various distributions of what is ultimately a more communal form of property, but more one of "emancipating" property from communal hands into private hands. At least, this was the mechanism of the enclosures, the dispossession of peasants and casting them into the cities to sell their labor.

    As a result, the state becomes, in the authors' words, "a separate entity, beside and outside civil society." Those places where the state is most up front about its existence as a way to enshrine property rights are probably the best developed bourgeois states say the authors.

    In a certain respect (albeit a very vague respect) Hegel is correct in saying that the state and civil society are distinct entities, but gets it upside down; it is how civil society -- in particular the productive relations within that society -- is organized that determines what kind of property will be protected. The meaning is derived from these relations, not the other way round. Likewise the Proudhonist observation that "property is theft," while glib and catchy, fails to understand that the protection of private property itself is greatly derived from how all commodities (and thus all property) are produced.

    If being determines consciousness, then institutions that embody a certain consciousness are themselves rooted in relations rather than just the sum of their ideological parts. Or as Marx and Engels put it: "Hence the illusions that law is based on the will, and indeed on the will divorced from its real basis -- on

    will."

    Classes -- as a component of civil society -- aren't merely a matter of consciousness, but rather a matter of when the material interests of a group of individuals start to be consciously pitted against those of another. It is a real material process of subsumption. It's part of what makes up the base (which allows for warring within classes too), and again, the superstructure is determined from there.

    Capitalism, because of its reliance upon a comparatively large gulf of alienation, creates conditions in which people's personality is shaped by the external class forces working upon them. In pre-capitalist times, the authors point out, one's identification as a "nobleman" or "commoner" was much more interwoven into their identity. This is in contrast to the identification with a class, a working class in particular, which is the only class that can, for various reasons "universalize itself" and begin to speak for the abolition of classes.

    But, because of this kind of alienation, this subsumption of individuality to class identity, there is what Marx and Engels refer to as an illusion of freedom. But the alienation of labor, the coalescing and hoarding of resources and means of production into the hands of bourgeoisie, in fact makes things less free for people.

    As for the state, it has naturally been turned toward favoring the bourgeoisie. Though all individuals are equal before both it and the law, the class interests -- precisely because they aren't formally acknowledged in the law -- are performed again and again.

    Marx and Engels then move on to talk about the communist outlook. All that seemed trans-historical or "natural" has its true nature exposed by dialectical materialism, and under a system of communism it would be consciously treated as such. With a universal class -- the proletariat -- at the helm of society, a unity of individuals itself is universalized.

    In turn, notions of individuality and property will be reshaped, their full potential opened up deliberately. Accidental and anarchic forces created by class society and its requisite division of labor and alienation, will be purposefully reunified. All that seemed beyond the control of the individual will be brought back to their realm.

    Backtracking a bit, we can see how this is possible by understanding that historical development is the reflection of changes in the economic and material relations of the base. What seems at one moment to be an advance over the old relations and means of production may years later become the fetters on history. Within this there is the relationship between the superstructure and base itself. Cracks at the base can become chasms in the superstructure, and often this opens up the possibility of real change at the base.

    Again, this is a process that has hitherto in class society been something that came naturally from its contradictions rather than a conscious free association of individuals. There is very little "conscious" in it. It is another expression of the alienated rift between consciousness and historical forces; that which has been beyond our control shaping our ideas themselves.

    This isn't to say that these contradictions haven't resulted in the masses entering onto the world stage, or that they haven't changed history. It is to say that largely they have been moved to do so by forces beyond their control, in an attempt to bridge the gap: "Thus all collisions in history have their origin... in the contradiction between the forces of production and the form of intercourse."

    The next section is a brief detour into asking how conquest interrupts this relationship of social change. The answer is: not much. That which is taken in conquest eventually has to be put to use, some kind of production eventually has to take place. When the Germanics conquered Rome they overthrew the slave-holding system and replaced it with feudalism, but it was reliant upon the previous conditions.

    It can be surmised (as Marx and Engels do) that in industrial capitalism, private property in its actual existing state is counterposed to labor. The productive forces are, for the first time in history, separated, alienated, from the mass of people. Self-activity is divorced from this mass, the proletariat, as is the simple ability to survive, unless they agree to enter into the setup on its own terms.

    Alienation, sense of individual harmony (which Feuerbach and others seem to believe comes from simply changing the view of yourself in relation to inequality) only comes, as the authors say, from the mass laying their hands on the productive forces: "Modern universal intercourse can be controlled by individuals, therefore, only when controlled by all... only at this stage does self-activity coincide with material life, which corresponds to the development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting-off of all natural limitations."

  • Rory

    Obviously didn't read the whole thing, pretty much everything after the chapter on Feuerbach is just Marx being rude about young hegelians

  • Riley

    I've been feeling like I don't read enough difficult books anymore, so The German Ideology was my crack at one. It is early Marx and Engels, in which they are first iterating their theories of materialism. One thing that has always struck me from the few times I've read Marx....I tend to think of Marxism as philosophy, and it is always interesting to see how much it was offered as science, a form I don't think ages well for it. One other thing....Marx weighs in one of the old questions here: Whe

    I've been feeling like I don't read enough difficult books anymore, so The German Ideology was my crack at one. It is early Marx and Engels, in which they are first iterating their theories of materialism. One thing that has always struck me from the few times I've read Marx....I tend to think of Marxism as philosophy, and it is always interesting to see how much it was offered as science, a form I don't think ages well for it. One other thing....Marx weighs in one of the old questions here: Whether it is better to fight the system or transcend it. I think my own inclinations are more for the latter, which he assails as illusionary.

  • Ben Kearvell

    For all his nay-saying about German ideology, Marx (and Engels) remains a German ideologue--and a very thorough one. Materialism, as Marx would have it, owes a debt to Hegel and romantic philosophy in general. He (Marx)may have turned metaphysics on its head, yet he failed to remove the head. But there's no getting rid of it. Marxist economy requires a hidden hand, better said, a shift in ontology, or the way one values the world (and oneself). Materialism itself, if history is anything to go by

    For all his nay-saying about German ideology, Marx (and Engels) remains a German ideologue--and a very thorough one. Materialism, as Marx would have it, owes a debt to Hegel and romantic philosophy in general. He (Marx)may have turned metaphysics on its head, yet he failed to remove the head. But there's no getting rid of it. Marxist economy requires a hidden hand, better said, a shift in ontology, or the way one values the world (and oneself). Materialism itself, if history is anything to go by, has failed to achieve that.

    Marx's nay-sayings about Stirner are highly entertaining. Only a keen metaphysician would take so much time with him (300 plus pages). Here Marx reminds me of Hunter Thompson: the sort of maniacal joy he found in opposition. If Max Stirner is Sancho Panza, Marx is Cervantes.

    The German Ideology is very much a rant, and I enjoyed it as such. It seems like a good place to start with historical materialism and the like. Perhaps I'll know for sure when I've read Capital.

  • Xander

    The German Ideology (written in 1845, published in 1923) was Karl Marx’s first major work on his theory of materialism, as well as the first outline on Communism. Marx develops his thoughts in relation to contemporary German philosophy. This approach has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it makes Marx’s main ideas – to be further developed over the decades – much easier to digest. It also illuminates the philosophical underpinnings of his theories in a way that all his later wo

    The German Ideology (written in 1845, published in 1923) was Karl Marx’s first major work on his theory of materialism, as well as the first outline on Communism. Marx develops his thoughts in relation to contemporary German philosophy. This approach has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it makes Marx’s main ideas – to be further developed over the decades – much easier to digest. It also illuminates the philosophical underpinnings of his theories in a way that all his later work fails to do. On the minus side, this approach makes Marx’s line of thought hard to follow without any knowledge of Idealism. It also makes the book rather obscure and outdated.

    Before continuing this review, I have to state that I only read the first part of Volume I of The German Ideology (besides reading some minor parts of Volume II). The reason is that the first 120 pages or so are easy to follow, since Marx develops his own thoughts and barely mentions the ideas of Feuerbach – who is supposed to be the focus of this first part – and where he does, he usually explains Feuerbach’s position in a clear & concise way. The problems start when Marx enters upon the discussion of the Idealism of Bauer and especially Stirner (whose part takes up almost half the book!).

    One has to be intimately familiar with the philosophies of Bauer and Stirner, since Marx sets out to meticulously & scrupulously refute the ideas involved. And not only this, he does this in a very cynical and sarcastic tone of voice. For instance, after dealing with Feuerbach – who seems to have earned the respect of Marx and to deserve a fair treatment, Marx presents a short interlude. In this interlude, he tells us how two clerics (Bauer and Stirner) have called a council to refute the gnostic viewpoint of a heretic (Feuerbach) as well as some rebels (Hess and others). Saint Bruno and Saint Max, Marx continues to calls them throughout Volume I.

    After this short interlude, Saint Bruno gets a beating, and when he’s down and out, it’s time for the main events: Marx versus Saint Max. It is impossible to follow Marx’s tirade against both Saints without being thoroughly familiar with their papal bulls ( to continue Marx’s metaphor). Marx endlessly quotes these two idealists and then refutes them (or so he claims) on the finest points.

    Nevertheless, the main ideas of The German Ideology are easy to grasp; beautiful in their nature and originality; harsh in their criticisms; and indispensable for a true understanding of Marx’s materialism. They are also easy to summarize:

    Hegel claimed that World History is the development, in dialectical fashion, of Ideas. The subject, the consciousness, grasps the world through ideas. These ideas determine the world (very Kantian, although in a perverted fashion). All that exists is Ideas. And Consciousness comes to a true and full understanding of itself, Self-Consciousness, through this dialectical process. To understand World History, one has only to trace the history of Ideas. Hegel developed these obscure notions into an all-encompassing philosophical system, and taught this for years at the University of Berlin. When he died, his followers, the Young Hegelians, developed Hegel’s philosophy in their own ways. Marx originally was part of this group, but later on came to regard Idealism as futile and empty.

    Now, in The German Ideology, Marx explains why. In Theses on Feuerbach (1845), Marx claimed: “Philosophers have hitherto tried to interpret the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it.” His materialism, and its offshoot political programme Communism, was activism – change the world, not interpret it. This can be seen in his many later works, in which he predicted the downfall of capitalism and the need for Communist Revolutions and the creation of a Communist paradise, where each will get what he needs and desires. Alas, the meaning of changing, instead interpreting, the world goes much deeper and is directly linked to Hegel’s Idealism.

    Hegel and the Young Hegelians (Feuerbach, Bauer, Stirner and others), claimed that reality is nothing but consciousness: the subject determines the object. This in itself is rooted in Kant, who tried the ‘subject determines object’ as prophylactic for his headaches on the incompatibility of Newton’s mechanics and Descartes’ rationalism. Science (and empiricism à la Locke and Hume) claimed that the object determines the subject (i.e. the objective reality is experienced by conscious beings), while the rationalists claimed that the object doesn’t exist without the subject (i.e. the conscious being constitutes the world, hence no chair if I’m not looking). David Hume became sceptical and claimed that this dilemma is unresolvable, we should just become sceptics and get on with life. Kant defeated Hume’s radical scepticism, or so he thought, by claiming that empiricism and rationalism are both right: the object is perceived by the subject, but at the same time the subject constitutes the object. Since the subject is a limited conscious being, the object can only be known superficially, the object as it is in itself is un-knowable. Kant, in short, resolved the dilemma by positing a whole new world, behind the world as we perceive – how is that for a fancy trashcan, in which to drop nasty questions?

    Anyways, Hegel came on the scene and radicalized Kant: the subject, consciousness, is all there is. The objects are determined by the subject, by thinking or perceiving them. In other words: the material world is determined by consciousness. But this, then, leads immediately to the strangest of implications: the Ego is all there is. And history, the development of the material world, since the material world is determined by the consciousness perceiving it, is nothing but the history of ideas. Study the ideas and you understand the world. Forget about the rest.

    Marx sees the flaw in this philosophical system and goes in for the kill. Ideas are abstract notions of material objects. E.g. Feuerbach’s Man is nothing but the generalization of many individuals, a general concept of mankind. The selection of individuals – their epoch, class, society & culture – determines the notion. Hence, philosophers project their idealization of certain concepts, like Man, onto the world as a whole and back in time. When Adam Smith and David Ricardo talk about how civil society is the pivot in economics they project their own epoch onto history, which leads to subversion of truth.

    Marx’s criticism shoots two fatal arrows at Idealism. First, the abstractions that philosophers use to understand the world, lure them into the misguided idea that Ideas are the building blocks of science, while the Ideas are nothing but the end result of very material, earthly processes. According to Marx, when man stumbled on the scene (a brute fact), he immediately started to produce (i.e. pluck from Nature what he needed), since man came with immediate needs: (1) the need to produce the means of subsistence (food, drink, clothes, shelter), (2) the need to produce more than before, since (3) the need for reproduction increased population size, and (4) social relationships/intercourse within groups. It is only after these four needs are fulfilled, that consciousness kicks in: reflection comes after having something to reflect on (!) and the means to communicate your thoughts. Philosophers subvert the truth when they claim that consciousness determines the world; it’s not religion that determines man’s essence (Feuerbach), but man’s essence (material needs; social production) that determines religion. The same for politics, morality, law, etc.

    The material world is the product of man’s production to fulfil his needs; through acting in and on the world, man determines the world. Then, consciousness arises of these changes, and this then influences man’s future acting. Starting a continuous cycle of change, in which man is shaping his world and vice versa. This is the true meaning of not interpreting the world, but change it: Revolution is possible once we acknowledge that man determines his own world and that acting, in community (preferably international), is the key to change. This can only be understand by first understanding Hegel’s philosophy and Marx’s criticisms.

    The second fatal arrow that Marx aims at contemporary philosophy and science is pointing at another subversion. The political economists (Smith, Riccardo, and their followers) claimed that capitalism – the division of labour and the separation of production and property (i.e. appropriation) – is the fundamental part that underlies historical development in social and political spheres. What this means, in effect, is that the existence of a capitalist class, a middle class of merchants, traders and middle men, and a lower class of proletarians – the class relations, which are a product of social production – are a characteristic of economics. But with claiming this, Smith & co. project their contemporary (English) civil society onto history.

    It’s simply untrue that capitalism is the mechanism of social development: capitalism is itself the end product of historical development – earlier epochs in which civil society didn’t exist, class relations were different, and economic mechanism worked in other ways. For example, the Roman Empire was not a capitalist society, and the feudal states that supplanted it in Western Europe weren’t either. Marx calls Smith, Riccardo and co. bourgeois economists, and it’s easy to see why: they project their bourgeois ideals on science and history.

    But then, what is Marx’s alternative to idealism & political economics? Since man is born with material needs; these needs lead to the need for increasing production; man’s production leads to social relationships; and this all leads to consciousness of Nature (as a means to produce); it follows that man’s actions determine the world and ideas follow suit. Materialism, the stance that not ideas (subject) but man and nature (object) determine reality, is Marx’s alternative to German Idealism. I think we can grant him his victory over Hegel & co. Idealism is a dead-end, materialism (i.e. science) has been much more successful in understanding & shaping our world.

    Marx’s alternative to political economics is slightly lengthier. Man in nature originally started, not as Rousseau’s solitary Man, but as member of a family. Over time, multiple families flocked together for reasons of safety and survival. In this tribal life, property is communal property.

    Then, when agriculture became possible, and tribes started to settle in increasing villages, towns and cities, property couldn’t be communal anymore. With increasing population and increase of productivity, division of labour – which is already inherent in the family-structure – started to change, and hence change the nature of property. If I produce, and you don’t, but you claim some of my produce, why should I give it to you? You’re just a parasite on the community. Hence, the concept private property is introduced.

    Also, with the increase of the community (especially in cities), and the tendency of the individual to look after his or her own interests, the general interests become too important for the survival of the whole. Hence, the need for a central authority arises: the State is introduced. The State’s goal: primitive regulations as rules of conduct and tools for decision making in clashes between private and general interests.

    This state of affair continues for some time, until feudal times. Private property tends to accumulate; the means of production (i.e. property) in such societies being primarily agriculture (i.e. land), and only secondarily tools and skills of artisans and merchants. Landed property and serfdom is the social relationship of such feudal societies – once again the class relationships are the product of the social production/division of labour.

    Peasants start to flock to the towns, the people in the towns manufacturing and selling become afraid that their professions would degrade and form alliances to exclude everyone from their professions and only accept apprentices on the condition that these apprentices work for them for a long period. Guilds.

    Soon, towns start to connect with each other – either in trade, military alliances or both – and this leads to the rise of merchants. The contradiction town-country now comes to include town-town. Then, later on, towns being included in states, states start to compete and trade with each other. We see here an ever-growing division of labour and trade network.

    With the discovery of America, things started to speed up. Now the whole world gradually became connected, foreign lands became colonized, and the nature of current social production started to spread globally. This leads to competition and alliances between states for colonies and markets. It also leads to the rise of the merchant class, which makes increasing amounts of money as the oil in the machine: intercourse becomes increasingly important.

    Ultimately, this pre-capitalist society comes to an end when demands outgrow production capacity. Why this is so, Marx explains by using the law of accumulation: competition leads to inequalities in property. Certain nations do better than others (see here Adam Smith’s magnum opus Wealth of Nations (1776) as an attempt to explain what makes a national prosperous – free trade, according to him), and the ones who end up with the most property become the main producers for the global market. By the eighteenth century, the United Kingdom started to dominate the world, which led to ever-increasing demand on their production (coal, iron, wood, clothes, spices, etc.).

    This shortage in production capacity leads to scientific discoveries and technological inventions: now production can be magnified to an unheard-of scales. The industrial age kicks in. Industrialization is a new form of social production: in this type of society – with this form of intercourse, as Marx would say – the means of production are accumulated in the hands of the few, to be put to used by the property-less many. The property of the masses – labour – is appropriated by those having a monopoly on the means of production: production and property are now separated for good. Industrialization, as a mode of social production, spreads across the globe and with this determines the form of social intercourse all over the world.

    This, in very brief outlines, is Marx’s take on historical development. According to him, all of history is nothing but the change of form of social production and hence change of form of intercourse. History is rife with class conflicts; each epoch has its own classes and division of labour; but the key idea here is that ever-increasing changes in production lead to ever-increasing divisions of labour, which lead to ever-increasing class warfare. The more division of labour increases, the more property is separated from production – those that produce do, in the end (i.e. the industrial epoch), not own any property; this is appropriated by those owning the means of production.

    According to Marx, history is an unfolding of class struggle. In capitalism, this battle of the classes come to an end: the property-less masses become so numerous, and the wealth and culture of the lucky few so pompous and visible, that the system will collapse. Not only this, the whole world also becomes highly homogenous under capitalism: in the end, all capitalists, all bourgeois, and all proletarians, will be uniformed – the same class will be united to its brethren in all other nations. Therefore, it is highly necessary to connect the proletarians, the property-less- all over the world with each other.

    This, in essence, is the content of part 1 (on Feuerbach) of Volume I of The German Ideology. It is the most interesting part of the book (from a 2018-perspective), since in this part are to be found the seeds of later historical events. Communism is nothing but the abolition of the social division of labour, or, in other words: the abolition of property. Once capitalist appropriation is stopped, by either scaring or killing the capitalists and the proletarians confiscating the means of production, the final stage of history has come. Now, all people will produce what they want, when they want, where they want, how they want, and in cooperation with whom they want. Of course, this is not how things turned out in post-1922 USSR or in post-1949 China. Reality doesn’t bend just because ideology demands it. Human nature as it is, Marx’s utopia where it’s “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”, simply is unreachable.

    Nobody in his right mind would draw this implication from a philosophical refutation of idealism and the establishment of materialism. Only someone like Marx would. We see here, as so often throughout history, the rich intellectual proclaiming visions of a perfect future. If only we’d listen to him.

    While Marx claimed that the process of alienation – the appropriation of the products by the capitalists – led to a feeling of loss and resentment on the part of the proletarians, it seems that Marx, although a bourgeois to his bones – was alienated himself, but then in a slightly different way. Marx, unlike Engels, remained the intellectual in his ivory tower for his entire life. All his talk about social justice, appropriation, alienation, the need for revolution – all this is empty talk. Marx never experienced having to work for 18 hours in a factory – a day, let alone decades. Marx never experienced the effects of poor living conditions, harsh working conditions and poverty on the mind. All he had to do was ask daddy Engels for some money and he could continue to spend days in libraries. Engels even stepped in when Marx fathered an illegitimate child by a house maid, and claimed that it was his child. Just like during his adolescent years, when his father stepped in to rescue him from some conflict or other. Marx simply was an irresponsible trouble maker.

    Perhaps one appreciates Marx’s struggle on behalf of the destitute (and applauds him for this), it remains the case that he was extremely alienated from it all. Had Marx had some (more) real life experience, perhaps he would have been more cautious in his activist call to action. In this, Marx wasn’t so innocent at all: he actively promoted a Communist Revolution, saw this as the culmination of history and, to judge his writings, couldn’t wait for it to start. One only has to combine such a mentality with the mentality of someone like Lenin – who claimed that one shouldn’t shy away from breaking a few egg shells in order to bake an omelette – and the world suddenly becomes deterministic.

    It is ironic that Marx refutes Hegel’s Idealism on the grounds that ideas are products of real life events, while his own ideas – of social revolution and the establishment of communism – determined real life events. Marx’s own theories prove Hegel’s notion of Ideas determining the World. Saint Karl was obviously too enthusiastic about his own utopian ideals to see the flaws in them.

    The German Ideology, although only partly comprehensible, is still relevant today. It’s the best exposition of Marxism’s philosophical underpinnings, the clearest definition of the Communist programme (although still very vague), a decent introduction to German Idealism and a highly useful introduction to Marx’s later economic theories. Understand the main concepts in this book and you understand Marxism, especially its inherent flaws and dangers (exposed in a bright light).

  • philosovamp

    The German Ideology is frequently referenced as a great starter text for students of Marxism. Imagine my horror upon discovering it is nigh-600 pages long and a philosophical critique of previous philosophers.

    The first portion, "INTRODUCTION TO THE CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY" is the most essential. It is a run down of various parts of Marx's burgeoning Dialectical Materialism.

    The following three sections, critiquing the Young-Hegelian Feuerbach, Bauer, and Stirner in that order,

    The German Ideology is frequently referenced as a great starter text for students of Marxism. Imagine my horror upon discovering it is nigh-600 pages long and a philosophical critique of previous philosophers.

    The first portion, "INTRODUCTION TO THE CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY" is the most essential. It is a run down of various parts of Marx's burgeoning Dialectical Materialism.

    The following three sections, critiquing the Young-Hegelian Feuerbach, Bauer, and Stirner in that order, is a real problem. The former two, and especially Bauer, are not often read or discussed in any context but this one: in which they are shut down by Marx. The Stirner passage lacks what even the former two sections had - brevity, with "Saint Max" stretching over 300 pages. Tracking the minute errors and logical issues of these un-read philosophers to all reach approximately the same conclusion was frustrating and nearly pointless. Allow me to summarize:

    Hegel was great, but his Idealism has some problems. Namely failing to see that ideas are nothing but the products of the prevailing means of production. These three guys follow Hegel's Idealism but don't do much with it, especially Stirner who is a dumb idiot.

    Volume II closes out with some other dumb idiots who now have the gall to bash the French revolutionaries for being too "crude" and not ideal enough.

    The thinking was of course quality (and in many instances, the writing - Marx is pretty damn funny), but I do not recommend actually reading this work. Read up on the context of all of the aforementioned philosophers, and then read "Theses on Feuerbach" to get the same thing. There appear to be abridged printings of the text: I haven't looked at what is included in them, but perhaps they are worth seeking out.

  • Andrew

    As many vaunted references as I've seen to The German Ideology, I've got to say, I simply couldn't get most of it. However, it's still a book of immense value. Let me explain.

    Marx in this book is, while formulating his thought, bouncing off of, refuting, and satirizing the positions of a number of now largely forgotten German idealist thinkers (Feuerbach, Stirner, etc.) and their approaches, condemning them for engaging in Hegelian shell games rather than actually pursuing a real, wo

    As many vaunted references as I've seen to The German Ideology, I've got to say, I simply couldn't get most of it. However, it's still a book of immense value. Let me explain.

    Marx in this book is, while formulating his thought, bouncing off of, refuting, and satirizing the positions of a number of now largely forgotten German idealist thinkers (Feuerbach, Stirner, etc.) and their approaches, condemning them for engaging in Hegelian shell games rather than actually pursuing a real, world-changing political philosophy. The first two attacks are rather fun, but then the long slog begins in his diatribe against Stirner, which is about 250 pages too long, but then he brings it back with some more criticisms of criticisms of the French Revolution. It's not a casual read, and, really, for most of us who aren't German academics, a few excerpts are fine, but it is a game attempt at a philosophical house-cleaning. And, for the modern reader, it makes you realize how disappointed dear old Karl would be at the academic "Marxists" today who attempt to bombard his philosophy with similarly idealist tendencies.

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