Solidarity: Standing Marx on His Head

With the disappearance of the USSR, and of one Communist party after another, Marxism has begun to return to its former condition as the hobby of a few disturbed individuals. Long the most popular formulation of the ideology of revolution it is still only one version, prepared in a particular set of historical circumstances. These included the steam train, world-dominating empires, factories managed by their owners, muzzle-loading rifles and severe restrictions on trade unionism. They did not include automobiles, multinationals, nuclear weaponry, computers, internal combustion, industrial electricity, radio, television, sophisticated management, fax machines, widespread universal franchise, or trade unions as we now know them. To maintain that changes in the means and condition of production must not be allowed to affect the “ideological superstructure” (with Marxism as a part of it) would be to throw both Marx and Marxism overboard. That theory implies its own supersession by another, but even so it retains historical importance; students of political thought who have not tackled it have a Marx-shaped gap in their understanding. Marxism still justifies the trouble of thinking about it, and the effort of demonstrating its limitations. The article below first appeared in SOLIDARITY, Volume 7, No. 6, under the title: “Political Consequences of Philosophical Illusion (Marx’s Theory of Being and [MISSING IN ORIGINAL] [1]

One of Marx’s most complete and definitive statements concerning his philosophical assumptions and their application to the problem of social change (both evolution and revolution) appears in the famous preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Owing to its importance and clarity, we shall quote it here at some length:

The general results at which I arrived, and which, once won, served as a guiding thread for my studies, can be briefly formulated as follows: In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitute the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they had been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short – ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. [2]

This definitive and self-contained statement was written by Marx in 1859, eleven years after he wrote the Communist Manifesto and eight years before the publication of Volume I of Capital. In other words, it is well embedded in Marx’s mature and creative period, and forms a logical link between the Manifesto and Capital. It explains why Marx considered it necessary to proceed from a political analysis (like the Manifesto) to an economic analysis (like Capital). Moreover, this preface is not some marginal idea of Marx’s, which can be discard as ‘insignificant.’ It is the philosophical core of his ideas. It is, in fact, his philosophical system.

It is not the development of the man Marx that we wish to discuss, but the idea that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” This formulation of a fundamental problem, that many great minds had grappled with in various historical periods, stunned many with its clarity. To many, it appeared as if Marx had done more than just formulate the problem with unprecedented brilliance, but that he had actually solved it. Here, at long last, was the discovery of the Objective Dynamic of History. This was what made all societies evolve, develop, undergo revolutionary crises, surmount them, and proceed on a new path. Of course, this whole process had to be carried out by the acts of millions of people, each with his own consciousness, but this social awareness was itself merely part of the “ideological forms in which men become conscious of the conflict between the material productive forces of society and the existing relations of production.” In other words, the consciousness motivating those who fought out the conflict was itself a product of the material productive forces.

To realise that Marx did not solve the problem at all, but merely created the illusion of a solution, one need only rephrase his formulation with a minor modification. We need only introduce the term “change” into it. Consider the following:

It is not the change in consciousness of men that determines the change in their being but, on the contrary, the change in their social being that determines the change in their consciousness.

QUESTION: Where does the change in social being originate?

ANSWER: From changes in the material productive forces.

FURTHER QUESTION: Where do these changes in the material productive forces originate?

To this question Marx has no answer. Or if he has one, he never states it explicitly. Marx is, of course, aware that changes occur in the material productive forces themselves, because these changes are, in his view, the source of all other changes in social life. But he never attributes significance to the source of changes in the material productive forces. In the quoted preface he mentions the “development of the material productive force,” the “change of the economic foundation,” the “material transformation of the economic forces of production.” But nowhere in the preface or in any other of his writings does he answer the question: what generates this development / change / transformation of the material productive forces? And what is the social significance of the factors which generate this change?

To many people this may appear as a pseudo-problem. They would argue that all one has to do is to observe what is actually taking place in real life. A change in the material forces of production is brought about by the implementation of some technological invention. This requires: a) a new invention; b) an investment to transform the invention into an economic reality. Does this not resolve the problem?

Not at all. It merely raises a lot of further questions. What, throughout history, has motivated inventors to invent new technologies? And what has motivated those who had means to select and choose a particular invention and incur the risk of investing in its practical implementation?

To argue that many inventions are accidental is not good enough, unless one accepts that accidents are the generators of social change. To say that, although individual inventions may be accidental yet on a statistical scale they exhibit an overall, non-accidental pattern, is little more than rephrasing the problem. For what then is this pattern? We know, for example, that the ancient Greeks had sufficient scientific and technological know-how to improve their agricultural production significantly. Instead, all this know-how was applied to warfare and temple building. To say that throughout history most inventors and investors, whether as individuals or as social groups (the investors – even as a class) were impelled by the “profit motive” is to retroject onto the whole history of all known societies typically capitalist motives and a specifically capitalist ethos. Moreover, what is this “profit motive?” Is it simply greed or the need to accumulate? To assume this is to accept the naive (bourgeois) assumption that human beings are inherently competitive and that this inexplicable characteristic of the individual is the generator of social change; This type of explanation, which embeds the problem in “human nature,” is more than just a logical trick which transforms a problem which cannot be answered into an assumption which requires no explanation. It is an acceptance of the capitalist ethic. To accept this ethic is to accept the most fundamental assumption of capitalism, about human beings, and thus to be trapped ideologically within the bourgeois system. A more sophisticated analysis of the “profit motive” would interpret it as a class mentality, and as the urge of members of a given class to sustain their decision-making role in society. However, if one accepts this interpretation, one is forced to conclude that it is class consciousness (or a class subconsciousness) which brings about changes in the material productive forces in society. In other words, Marx’s view, that “social being determines social consciousness,” is stood on its head. (Class) consciousness would here clearly be determining (social) being.

Some marxists try to evade the whole problem by arguing that the whole process of social change must be grasped as an evolving totality, where “social being” influences “social consciousness” while being itself influenced by it. In other words, they will claim that society is a totality in which every element is both influencing and influenced by every other. They argue that “being” and “consciousness” are abstractions, describing partial aspects of a total social organism which can be grasped “correctly” only when considered as a whole, and that these abstractions themselves only obscure the dynamic of change. We can reply that it was Marx, not us, who posed the problem in these terms. Moreover, with all his firm grasp of Hegel’s dialectics, Marx still found it relevant to cast the problem in terms of “Being” and “Consciousness,” and to attribute to “Being” a dominant role.

Marx was, of course, fully aware that class consciousness plays a role both in invention and implementation of new technologies. Yet he found it necessary to emphasise that it was the change in the material forces of production which dominated the change in social consciousness. In other words, the mutual relation between the two was not symmetric: one aspect was dominant, the other subordinate. In short, viewing the social organism as an evolving totality fails to resolve the problem in the terms in which Marx himself posed it. Even if one manages to extricate one’s own version of “marxism” from being cracked by Marx’s formulation of the relation between “Being” and “Consciousness” one is still left with the basic problem itself: what generates social change?

Perhaps there is no particular segment of social life (i.e. either “consciousness” or “being”… or anything else) that plays a dominant role in generating social change? Perhaps the whole problem is just a lot of hot air? To say so is more than to reject Marx’s view on the matter. It is to accept a passive role in effecting social change. If one has no answer to the problem of social change, one is unable to contribute consciously towards it. How can one act to bring about desirable social transformations (including revolution) without some answer to the question of the dynamics of social change? The answer (or absence of answer) which people give (consciously or unconsciously) to this question shapes the outcome of their activity (or inactivity) in struggles to effect such change. For example, we know that many ex-members of the Communist Parties in Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary etc. who sacrificed a lot in order to establish these regimes now recoil in horror when facing what they helped to create. However, a significant part of the blame is to be put down to their acceptance of Marx’s view of social change. It is not too difficult to outline the relation between Marx’s view of an objective dynamic of social change and the rise of a political bureaucracy to a dominant role in society. One could almost say, metaphorically, that Marx was the prophet of a new deity, namely the development of the productive material forces of society. The political bureaucracy which emerges in all organisations which define themselves as marxist is the priesthood of this faith; the power of any priesthood is based on general acceptance of the faith.

The fact that Marx’s answer was an illusion which transformed the problem into a mystery (the mystery of a self-transforming material productive basis of society – or, in other words, of an autonomously developing technology) is another example indicating that social illusions can become tremendous social forces. The irony of this, namely that social illusions themselves can become a force for social change, must not distract us from the problem of the relation between the nature of the illusion and the quality of the social change which it helps to bring about.

The relation between Marx’s views on social change and the nature of the regimes his ideas helped to create, regimes which find it essential to uphold marxism as their official philosophy, ought to serve as a warning: those who fail to provide their own answer to this problem will one day find themselves entangled in the political consequences of somebody else’s answer.

[1] Reprinted by kind permission of the editors of Solidarity, an excellent libertarian journal published from [address]. £6 for four issues.
[2] Marx-Engels, Selected Works Moscow 1955 Vol I p.362

First appearing in SOLIDARITY the article reprinted above was printed in SPANNER, and the title given it here, “Standing Marx on His Head,” fairly describes what the anonymous author has done. The article inverts Marxist theory; it suggests, against Marx, that consciousness determines social being, rather than vice versa.

While doing this, however, it preserves a principle feature of the theory, and in doing so largely defeats its own insight. By speaking of class consciousness it shows itself to be maintaining the assumption that consciousness is determined (at least fundamentally, in the long run and the broad outline) by class position, when it is recognition of the weight of evidence against this belief that opens the way to an advance beyond Marxism. Rather than adopting a way of thinking consonant with (what Marxism defines as) their material interests, people and groups understand their material interests in this or that sense according to the way they think. Those who think in ways that favour private ownership and economic competition believe that a society working on these principles operates in their interests, and people think in this way (or another) irrespective of their class position. The overwhelming majority of those Marxism defines as workers accept or support capitalism rather than communism (or socialism or anarchism), and continue to do so after Marxism has been around for a century and a half, attaining to nominal control of something like half the world.

Marx asserts that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” While the statement may produce a first impression of stunning clarity, reflection shows it to contain a radical confusion, and one not improved by reversal. Consciousness is itself a constituent (and a major one) of social being, so that to say either “consciousness determines social being” or “social being determines consciousness” is to say that consciousness determines consciousness. This is not at all what Marx thought he was saying, but it carries more meaning than may at first appear, for consciousness possesses dynamic reflexivity; it does determine itself. We think about thinking, and in doing so develop our thought; Marx himself provides an outstanding example of this process. By thinking we also develop our practice (as well as by practice developing our thinking) and here lies the solution to the problem the article perceives as underlying Marxism: Where do the changes in the material productive forces originate?

The productive forces are like social being in not being merely material. Goods do not produce themselves, machines and factories do not construct themselves, relations of possession and exchange (even if we accept these as material) do not establish themselves. All these things result from purposeful, thought-governed human activity, and this holds good even when outcome differs widely from intention. The productive forces include consciousness (in one or another form according to the ideology of the relevant group) as their dynamic element and from interaction between this, the products and the social being (including the thinking) of the place and time come the changes in them.

WRITERS of science-fiction stories sometimes suggest the existence of other universes alongside the one we know, with the hero moving between them. The idea may seem to belong with fairy tales, but how stable is (what we usually think of as) the familiar universe? Since a full definition of it would specify all that is, including every tiny detail, every change however minute turns it into a different one. We not only can move into different universes but are constantly doing so with every action or event. It seems to be rather the idea of one universe which while changing remains the same that is the fantasy.

EVERY silver lining has its cloud around it.

from Ideological Commentary 55, Spring 1992.