July 19, 2024

Marx’s Misfired Mission, Part 1 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

It would be an overstatement to say that the failure of Marxism as an historical movement was evident long before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  But it is possible to trace it to Marx’s own inability, or reluctance, to build upon his own powerful insights in his 1843 manuscript Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which did not appear in print during his lifetime except for the self-published introduction in 1844  Although the entire manuscript was discovered in the early 1920s by David Rjazanov, a Russian revolutionary and Berlin archivist of Marx’s work, it was not translated until the rise of the New Left in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s [1].  Before then it had been deliberately ignored by orthodox Marxist-Leninists, largely because it was considered juvenile and atypical of what had come to be considered the “real” Marx whose analytical acuity forged the mature writings of Marx after the revolutions of 1848 when he cemented his partnership with Engels. 

`From what is known about Marx during these early years, his failure to publish the manuscript in its totality can be attributed to several sets of circumstances. First, his close association with the radical academic coterie in Berlin  known as the Young Hegelians persuaded the Prussian government to block him from launching an academic career.  Second, while for a few years on receiving his doctorate he worked successfully as a journalist, state censorship of his writings forced him to go into exile in Paris, where he met Engels and took up the on-the-ground revolutionary cause.  During the same period immediately preceding the social upheavals of the late 1840s, Marx became avidly immersed in reading history and political economy, and once outside Germany the philosophical topics that had preoccupied him during his stint with the Young Hegelians in Berlin seemed increasingly unimportant or irrelevant.

Third, the debacle of the 1848 uprisings probably convinced him that ferreting out the “contradictions” of industrial capitalism through the method of “dialectical materialism” he was developing with Engels was far more consequential than the abstruse academic issues that had aroused him as a graduate student a decade earlier.  Finally, apart from the introduction which appeared in the radical Parisian newspaper Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, which he and Arnold Ruge had founded, the full manuscript itself was not really a coherent piece of writing, but a jumble of lengthy quotations from Hegel to which Marx attached profuse annotations and commentary.

It is perhaps fair to say that Marx’s unpublished Critique, if he had actually worked through it and owned it as a threshold for his more mature career, would have taken the revolutionary young thinker in a somewhat different direction.  What stands out everywhere within the German edition of the Critique is Marx’s symphonic variation on the term Gattung, or “species”, in relation to “human beings” (Menschen). Marx throws around such words – compounds in German, but hyphenated constructions in English transation – as “species-being” (Gattungswesen), “species-existence” (Gattungsdasein), “species-constitution” (Gattungsgestaltung) , “species-content” (Gattungsinhalt), “species-will” (Gattungswille), “species activity” (Gattungstätigkeit), “species-life” (Gattungsleben), etc.

This kind of rhetoric was familiar to the young Hegelians.  It was implicit in the argument throughout Feuerbach’s major work The Essence of Christianity. According to Feuerbach, Christianity in light of the doctrine of the “God-man” symbolizes human self-consciousness of itself as divine.  That is the backdrop of Feuerbach’s well-known quip that theology must become anthropology. Theological thought is an un-selfconscious simulacrum for the innate capacity of the human species to inquire into its own generic character.  Human beings are the only animals capable of the all-compassing cognitive pursuit known as “science” (Wissenschaft).  According to Feuerbach,

…the animal lacks consciousness, for consciousness deserves to be called by that name only because of its link with knowledge. Where there is consciousness in this sense, there is also the capacity to produce systematic knowledge or science. Science is the consciousness of species. In life we are concerned with individuals, but in science, with species. Only a being to whom his own species, his characteristic mode of being, is an object of thought can make the essential nature of other things and beings an object of thought.

Several sentences later Feuerbach offers a pithy summary of this complex point by concluding that what makes human beings unique is that they “converse”, enter “into a dialogue with” themselves.[2]  In 1845 Marx made explicit what was only tacit in the Critique with his well-known “Theses on Feuerbach”, published in Brussels.   In the 1843 manuscript Marx had concentrated on the “abstract” quality of Hegel’s putative concrete universal.  Now he argued that even Feuerbach, as the cynosure of the Young Hegelians, had succumbed to the same hidden weakness.  Feuerbach had portrayed himself as the  materialist foil for Hegel’s speculative idealism, foisting the impression that the “secret” of self-realized spirit was truly the infinite potential of the species self-consciousness.

But the “species-life” of collective humanity resided not in its aptitude for self-scrutiny under the aegis of “science” but in the form of historical praxis.  The ”essence” (Wesen)  of “religion” is not, as Feuerbach maintained, self-conscious generic humanity, but “the ensemble of social relations.”  Whereas Feuerbach wanted to construe the “species” (Gattung) merely as “an inner, dumb generality”,[3] Marx proclaims that his new starting point for the dialectic is “social humanity”, which has an ongoing, concrete history.  Feuerbach’s “material” refuses to “conceive of the sensible as practical activity”.   Likewise, social theory itself can no longer be confined to the activity of the intellectual spectator, but must be completely imbricated “in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” [4]  Thus the role of philosophy is no longer to “interpret” the world, but to “change” it.

The thought operations through which Marx realigned himself in the mid-1840s as an active revolutionary rather than simply as a critical theorist are evident in the Critique.  But what is often given short shrift in the reams of literature analyzing Marx’s transition during this period is why precisely he switched in such a brief interval from the concerns of philosophy to political economy.  It would be a stretch to suggest seriously that Marx was doing what we now regard “political theology” in the early 1840s, but his prepossession with both Hegelianism and the question of religion during those years make such an idea more than a little tempting.  What is indisputable is that in the Critique Marx is draws an enormous amount of attention, which never surface again in any of his later musings, the problem of popular sovereignty and its theological insinuations.  In much of the lengthy unpublished portion of the manuscript Marx is obviously troubled by the seeming impasse when it comes to Hegel’s formulation of sovereignty. Marx criticizes Hegel’s mental acrobatics in justifying the constitutional monarchy of Frederick William III in Prussia following the Napoleonic wars. 

Hegel and Frederick were born the same year, although the emperor outlived the philosopher.  Frederick William III initially wanted to allow some of the liberal reforms that the French Revolution and Napoleon’s armies had seeded into the souls of German patriots, but he quickly pulled back, preferring to support the reactionary policies of the German Confederation after the Congress of Vienna[5].  Yet while Prussia harbored its own version of the ancient regime, it became one of Continental Europe’s pacesetters in the process of industrialization.  Marx understood early on that Hegel’s ennoblement of the Prussian state as the historical realization of the “idea of freedom” was so much claptrap – and not just politically. What he would later refer to the “immiseration” of the expanding urban working class was also becoming obvious.  But the young Marx at first had only the linguistic instruments of Hegel’s “speculative”  philosophy – and the discursive parlor tricks of the Young Hegelians – to expose the grand master’s dialectical chicanery.

The inflection point for Marx’s assault on Hegel’s Rechtsphilosophie, as we have indicated, was the notion of sovereignty. Hegel, Marx insisted in the Critique, through a sleight of hand wanted to retain Bodin’s demand that sovereignty must be singularly embodied in the person of a monarch while claiming concomitantly that it was also distributed equitably among the “people”.  Marx saw that ruse succeeded only because it drew attention away from what was really going on Frederick William’s Prussia throughout the 1820s and 1830s.  The monarch’s sovereign authority was no longer technically vested in him as a person but in the the state with its massive bureaucracy which de facto answered only to the king. 

Hegel views sovereignty as an abstraction, Marx argues.   “Sovereignty, the essence of the state, is first conceived to be an independent being; it is objectified.”  In keeping with Hegel’s method of speculative dialectics such an objective entity must find its subject as “the self-incarnation of sovereignty.”[6]   The presumption that sovereignty can reside simultaneously in the monarch and the people as an amalgam of self-incarnated subjects proves to be a subterfuge to hide the controlling power of the autocrat.  The monarch hides behind the fiction of a state separated from the particular sovereign.  “The state as sovereign must be one, one individual, it must possess individuality. The state is one not only in this individuality; individuality is only the natural moment of its oneness, the state’s determination as nature.” [7]  What purports to be some kind of generalized will, yet it “has no more content than ‘ I wil’,  the moment of arbitrariness in the will,”[8] which amounts to the individual sovereign. 

Sovereignty must be concrete, according to Marx, but if it is not the person of the monarch, then it must pari passu be seated in the “species-being” that is the populus.  “The state is an abstraction.  The people alone is concrete.”[9]  Later in the Critique Marx examines the relation between sovereignty, the popular will, and legislation. The political authority to legislate, Marx insists, derives from the Medieval distinction between the “estates”.  In other words, the genealogy of the idea of the legislative function depends on class divisions.[10] Here Marx’s analysis becomes somewhat convoluted and opaque, but what he appears to be saying is that sovereignty at its marrow is confined to the establishment of laws as well as their implementation.   In a very important respect sovereignty is incompatible with “empirical university.”  In fact, “the true antitheses…are the sovereign and civil society.”[11]

In this early phase of his writings Marx is employing the traditional distinction reaching back to the Middle Ages between the political – or “sovereign” – realm and the various economic corporations or estates – churches, guilds, municipalities fraternal societies, etc..  By the early nineteenth century under the influence of British liberal theory, especially the writings of Adam Smith, the notion of “civil society” as independent and competing collective economic interests had given way to the assumption that it is the sum of individual economic actors behaving in their own self-interest – the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers, and so on – that characterizes civil society.  

In his early work Marx characterizes civil society as “egoistic man”[12]. The early nineteenth century view of civil society imbibed by the young Marx departs significantly from how the phrase is commonly employed nowadays, usually in the sense of democratic associations and non-governmental organizations dedicated to the promotion of the general welfare.[13]  This version is closer to the pre-modern conception of the “estates” – and thus to certain fuzzy modern constructs of the democratic politeia – than in classic liberalism. However, it retains its importance even in the current situation insofar Marx’s version of “civil society” (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) stands in contradistinction to the power of the state, an interpretation on which anti-Soviet movements in Eastern Europe such as Poland’s Solidarność in the 1980s relied extensively to challenge the ruling Communist elites.[14]

In the Critique Marx takes to task Hegel’s position that the state serves a “mediating” role in the natural tension between the multiple elements of civil society, especially when it comes to mitigating economic conflicts.  The state may masquerade as an arbiter, but it actually privileges specific economic interests as allies in bolstering its own political power.  Marx of course was witnessing the re-invention of feudal interests in the early stages of industrialization as the new capitalist overlords, something that was not as pronounced in England.  At the same time, Hegel had appropriated the rhetoric of English common law and parliamentary governance that had its origins in the seventeenth century Puritan assaults on absolutism without taking into account that Germany in the 1820s was still governed for the most part by Medieval princes and princelings as well as petty aristocrats. 

Marx’s effort in the fairly crude and ponderous diction of German idealism to locate authentic democratic impulses in the non-hereditary estates (Stände) and the artisan groupings, who through urbanization and proletarianization had lost their feudal protections and whom he regarded as the real social body, can be compared to an incipient present day trend, outside the cenacle of neoliberal ideologues, toward re-evaluating “populist” movements as having genuine political agency motivated by genuine political grievances against their de-politicization on the part of cognitive capitalist elites.  The maddeningly murky Marxian metaphor of the “species-entity” (Gattungsdasein), a clever expression that called in the chips on Hegel’s spurious claims of a manifestly “ethical” bourgeois state headed by a lifelong serving monarch, still has an edge to it.  Marx’s observation that Hegelian sovereignty is inescapably severed from actual civil society reminds us that the quest for the true “people” in the chirruping confusion of contemporary theorizing about democracy, especially within our progressive neoliberal twilight mood of insipid posturing where everything seems to be in the lyrics of Lennon and McCartney “strawberry fields forever”, remains a daunting project.

Where did Marx’s mission misfire?  We pose such a question only because of the now indisputable failure of Marxism as a mass historical movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The triumphalism of the globalist, quasi-capitalist ideology known as “neoliberalism”, which gained attention in the two decades immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and which had elevated Marxist-Leninism as the standard bearer for various internationals or world socialist movements in the first place, has now been discredited by the financial disasters of the past decade and a half.  Yet Marxism, which has decanted into mostly specious and superficial academic polemics with hardly any serious rank and file organizational energy during that time, has never, even at its outset, been a monolith of either theory or practice that would rear up or topple en bloc.  

Derrida splendidly reminds us that we are forever “haunted” by Marx, who like the ghost of Hamlet’s father is constantly staring directly at us from some alternate universe.  Just as Hamlet the dead king has the same name as Hamlet, the self-tormented prince of Shakespeare’s tragedy, so the “specter” of Marx has the same name, according to Derrida, as all the movements that yearn for the realization of the hope for democracy, or popular sovereignty. Derrida cites the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto from the 1840s which declares that a “specter” is haunting Europe. “No text in the tradition,” Derrida writes. “seems as lucid concerning the way in which the political is becoming worldwide”, what Derrida later in Specters of Marx dubs a “new international”.[15]

Derrida uttered this prophecy in 1991 during a colloquium held in Southern California to discuss “Whither Marxism” right after the telling events of August in Russia that year.  Just a little over 31 years later, however, no Derridean international in any perceptible form has emerged, even some kind of spooky ectoplasm peering at us from behind the visor of our political imagination.  If there is a new “international”, in the 2020s it manifests as erratically interlinked populist insurgencies around the planet that have defined themselves even more defiantly against the culturalist pseudo-Marxist elite pretensions of progressive neoliberalism. Such a populism for all its “internationalist” colorings is far from what Derrida appeared to have in mind.  It is less concerned with justice from any kind of eschatological stance than in angrily redressing the economic disenfranchisement and cultural indignities experienced from the disdain constantly heaped on it by the mouth organs for the ruling knowledge classes.  It has barely any intimation of a positive symbolism solidarity that would match this sense of indignation with a world-restoring vision that propels it forward.

Marx can be said perhaps to have “misfired” when he abandoned the philosophical projects of his twenties in his desperate scramble to move with his family from Europe to England after the reactionary crushing of the 1848 revolutions on the Continent.  Unfortunately, Marx probably had little choice. If he was going to be taken seriously as political theorist and revolutionary in an English environment, it became necessary for him to take leave of his German philosophical vocabulary, which was either unintelligible or seemed ridiculous to his new Anglophone patrons and to adopt the rigorous inferential and mathematicised method of argument familiar to the leading intellectual luminaries of the new “scientific” materialism.

But one must ask if Marx’s vision of the inevitable crises of capitalism and any future prospects for the revolutionary transformation that had first happened happened in the 1790s in France would have been seeded at all without the Hegelian spectacle of a gradually unfolding universal history. To be credible after his English hegira in 1849 to his death in 1883 Marx remained mindful of both the Zeitgeist and his fealty to Engels, which also positioned him far better to assume a starring role in formation of the truly international socialist mobilizations that took shape in 1861 and thereafter.  Nor otherwise would the first volume of Marx’s most famous work Capital have come to be officially proclaimed by the Brussels Congress of the First International as the “Bible of the working class”.[16]

In fact, Capital may have never been written at all.  Yet in order to achieve that kind of notoriety within the specific context where Marxism became the most impactful mass movement of the twentieth century Marx had to abandon his most prescient political critique for an “historical materialist” apocalypticism that birthed totalitarian monstrosities brandishing his reputation while falsifying his initial aims.  When the prophecy of the “inevitability” of a communist climax to history, first bruited as prophecy in the Manifesto,  proved fraudulent by the close of the last century, the knives came out for Marx himself, and the entirety of his project – aside from its enduring utility as a skeptical alternative to the excesses of neoliberal enthusiasms – came under suspicion.  There is no point in rehashing the tireless debates over the “good” versus the “bad” Marx.  The uses and misuses of the legacy of great historical figures are rife as, for example, in the Jesus as conceived by the first century Jerusalem Church and the sixteenth century Spanish Inquisition.  Marx was a mortal man, but his ideas , which vary considerably over his career, refuse to shrivel away.

In retrospect, the “misfire” can be traced specifically to Marx’s jettisoning of the concept of sovereignty after the early 1840s and his ensuing fixation on the notion of the proletariat as the “universal class” destined to bring the whole of heaven down to earth in the revolutionary apocalypse.  On the one hand, such a move, which encapsulates the more commonplace facets of Marxist theory, seems imprudent to let go of inasmuch as it has fired the imaginations of revolutionaries for almost two hundred years.  On the other hand, it is what led ultimately to Marxism’s public disgrace, and anyone other than those who consider Marx completely disreputable and worthless would be advised to consider what precisely remains redemptive in the complex corpus of his writings. 

Derrida’s “specters” persist to this day, but their spectrality requires more specificity. The issue of sovereignty long before Marx’s youthful decision to pick a fight with Hegel over the matter needs to be opened up anew on both its original and contemporary terms.  For it is our view that the early modern formulation of sovereignty have both radical and revolutionary implications that the giant shadow of Bodin and Schmitt, both of whom favored some flavor of autocracy, prevent us from seeing.  We can even go so far as to stress that these implications are implicit in the early Marx.

In the section of the Critique entitled simply “The Crown” Marx makes the rather undramatic claim that Hegel’s defense of constitutional monarchy consists in his sly attempt to say that the monarch is the embodiment of the people, when in fact the latter’s “sovereignty” is actually accorded to the state.  In Hegel sovereignty coincides with “conscious reason” which can only prevail “in the state”.[17]  Following Hegel’s own logic of how the universal becomes concrete, the “sovereign” can never be a single, physical person who somehow represents the entirety of his subjects.  Nor can sovereignty be compressed into the idea of the “state”, which is an abstraction form the start. “The activities of the state are nothing but the modes of existence and operation of the social qualities of men”,[18] and it is this social dimension of sovereignty that Marx seeks to flesh out in the expressions “species-being”, or “species-life”. 

For Hegel, sovereignty is simply “the ideality of the state’.[19]   Marx notes that Hegel calls it the “universal thought of this ideality”, but for the ideal to become real much more than the state apparatus itself must be identified as the bearer of the sovereign content.  The sovereignty of the people is radically different from the sovereignty of the monarch.  Sovereignty as the “predicate”, the “essence” (Wesen), of the state, “never exhausts the spheres of its existence in a single one but in many one’s.”[20]   In resisting the notion of popular sovereignty, according to Marx, balks at his own project of making immanent, or concrete, the universality of the very Idea of history.  He “without hesitation ascribes living qualities to the abstraction.”[21]   

The difference between the unity of monarch us and the unity of the populus, or demos, lies in whether one seeks to pass the universal abstraction off as concrete, or to derive dialectically the universal from its moment of incarnation within the concrete. “Hegel proceeds from the state and makes man into the subjectified state; democracy starts with man and makes the state objectified man.”[22]  Finally, there can be no “subjectivity” to the state.  The radical nature of concretely realized, or “socialized”, subjectivity abolishes the state.  That premise, first enunciated within a fairly esoteric parsing of Hegel’s own nomenclature by Marx in the Critique,  held as the overarching premise of his thought until his demise. There genuinely can be no such thing as “state socialism” in the Marxian universe of discourse.  It was the failure of Marxism as an historical movement to abolish the state that was the reason for its ultimate denouement.

But our commission is not to peruse what went wrong throughout the era of Marxism as a movement.  It is our job to uncover what sovereignty means in its most concrete Marxian sense and to tease out what might be leveraged in current socio-political discussions from such a discovery.  What is often scanted in Marxian theory was Marx’s own suspicion of construct of “civil society”, which in recent years has become a kind of sophistical signifier that cements neoliberal hegemony.  “The bureaucracy”, Marx writes later in the Critique, “is the state formalism of civil society. It is the state’s consciousness, the state’s will, the state’s power, as a Corporation.”[23]   It is tantamount to “the same fantastic abstraction that rediscovers state-consciousness in the degenerate form of bureaucracy, a hierarchy of knowledge, and that uncritically accepts this incomplete existence as the actual and full-valued existence-the same mystical abstraction admits with equanimity that the actual empirical state-mind, public consciousness, is a mere potpourri of the ‘thoughts and opinions of the Many’.”[24]

 Here Marx has not yet seemingly made the exact connection that will militate throughout his economic as opposed to his subsequent political manuscripts.  Civil society is not yet in his thinking “bourgeois” (bürgerlich).  The state bureaucracy is somehow its “formalistic” placeholder, an epistemic translation that Marx and Engels several years later in The German Ideology attribute to the dialectic of “base” and “superstructure.”  This translation becomes critical for understanding how the notion nowadays of democratic sovereignty has been hijacked by the ruling knowledge classes. 

The ruling knowledge class control the mediating performances of language through the corporate media, the higher education system, the global financial control centers neoliberal bureaucracies in Washington, London, Brussels, Geneva, etc.  Their constant rhetoric attacking populist movements as “authoritarian” and “anti-democratic” mask their intent to preserve the prerogatives of the. meritocratic and elite educated professionals who make up the administrative state as the locus of “democracy”, which is precisely what Marx sought to expose in his critique of Hegel.  “Neoliberal rationality”, as Brown calls it, is hardly different from the “rationality” of the Prussian state in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).  He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis. He was University Lecturer from 2020-21.

[1] The discovery of the importance of this part of the Marxian corpus is detailed in an essay by Shlomo Avineri, “The Hegelian Origins of Marx’s Political Thought”, The Review of Metaphysics 21 (1967): 33-56.

[2] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, trans. Zawar Hanfi (New York: Verso, 2012), 98.

[3] Op. cit., 118.

[4] Early Political Writings, op. cit., 117.

[5]  Matthew Levinger, Enlightened Nationalism: The Transformation of Prussian Political Culture 1806-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 205.

[6] Early Political Writings, op. cit., 24

[7] Op cit., 25.

[8] Op cit., 26.

[9] Op cit., 28.

[10] Op cit., 73.

[11] Op cit., 84.

[12] Op cit., 49.

[13] Such a contemporary definition has been offered by Cohen and Arato as a “notion of self-limiting

Democratizing movements seeking to expand and protect spaces for both negative liberty and positive freedom and to recreate egalitarian forms of solidarity without impairing economic self-regulation.” See Jean I. Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1997), 17-18.

[14] The notion of what exactly is meant by “civil society” is confusing and highly contest, and has resulted from various meanings attached to the phrase by different writers since the eighteenth century.  For a good overview of the changing meanings of the term, see Boris DeWiel, “A Conceptual History of Civil Society: From Greek Beginnings ot the End of Marx”, Past Imperfect 6(1997): 3-42. For use of the term by Marx, see Geoffrey Hunt, “The Development of the Concept of Civil Society in Marx”, History of Political Thought 8(1987): 263-76. Viren Murthy regards the term in Marx as “synonymous with capitalism”.  See Murthy, “Leftist Mourning: Civil Society and Political Practice in Hegel and Marx”, Rethinking Marxism 11(1999): 38.

[15] Specters of Marx, op. cit., 14.

[16] Paul Lafargue, “Reminiscences of Marx,” in Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Continuum, 2004), 185

[17] Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, op. cit., 21.

[18] Op. cit., 22.

[19] Op. cit., 23.

[20] Op. cit., 27.

[21] Op. cit., 28.

[22] Op. cit., 30.

[23] Op. cit., 46.

[24] Op. cit., 61.

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