April 17, 2024

Marx’s Misfired Mission, Part 2 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

In The Germain Ideology of 1846 Marx and Engels for the first time clearly and decisively clarify that the “sociality” of the human being as “species-being” is grounded in the historical relations of production.  Yet, Marx and Engels observe, “production is not only of a special kind. It is always a certain body politic, a social personality that is engaged on a larger or smaller aggregate of branches of production.”[1]   Furthermore, this “body politic” is held together by a certain idea, or set of ideas.  In one of the most well-known paragraphs of their collaboration Marx and Engels write:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.[2]  

Moreover, throughout history and in every age the ruling class seeks “to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society…expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.”[3]  In the Critique Marx had lambasted Hegel’s assimilation of democratic sovereignty to the administrative state and its literate and professional classes, the same kind of duplicity we find today in the progressive neoliberal regimes centered in the national capitols that claim to be bulwarks of “popular” governance fighting off through various illiberal decrees and executive power the “populist”  hordes.   

But here Marx and Engels supplant the realm of mere ideas – or “ideology” – with the realm of production (“base”) out of which the ideas (“superstructure”) arise.   The progressive neoliberal project sees the triumph of “democracy” worldwide, or the compulsion to fight for it, as akin to Hegel’s “self-determining idea”.  The very notion of the “knowledge economy” and the exaltation of something called “the production of knowledge” as the nub of all economic relations is simply the second coming of Hegelian idealism with its complete capture of the capitalist production machinery. It is both the monomaniacal apotheosis of the Cartesian cogito and Mignolo’s modernist/colonialist matrix of power.

In the concluding paragraphs of the section on Feuerbach in The German Ideology subtitled “Individuals, Class, and Community” Marx and Engels show their hand concerning the relationship between their “anthropology”, the theory of the state, and their anticipation of a “communist” revolution.  The historical failure of communism per se, and the inexorable past habit of so-called “communist revolutions” to ossify into immovable constellations of “state socialism” in which the productive capacity of the society itself falters, can be traced to these key pages.  What Marx and Engels regard as the very juncture where the Hegelian abstraction of the people as the state is presumably abolished through the revolutionary activity of the proletariat that renders the true “universal class” historically concrete turns out to be a reversal of the process.  The state does not dissolve, or “wither away”, and magically reveal itself finally as the concrescence of universal humanity.  On the contrary, “universalized” humanity becomes a “people’s democracy” which is actually the state in its rawest and most primitive form, as either the Party or “Dear Leader”.   How did such a deception become so entrenched in the first place? 

To answer this question we need to do a fine combing of the text of The German Ideology.  The section on Feuerbach, including the “Theses”, stands out among the pre-1848 writings because it elaborates extensively the more diffuse “materialism” contrasted with Hegel’s idealistic philosophy in the Critique.  In this section Marx and Engels analyze the changing affiliations between the “forces of production” (Produktionskräfte) and the “forms of intercourse” (Verkehrsformen).  The former expression nowadays we would perhaps refer to as the types of technology, or the “infrastructure” for manufacturing.  The term Verkehr can be translated as either “intercourse” or “commerce”.  But what clearly interests Marx and Engels in this early text is how changes in human “relations” (Verhältnisse) both mirror and are derived from the evolution of technology for economic production.  These relations are not merely economic, but also familial, social, and political.  Marx and Engels find the same kind of abstract rendering of essential human relationships in social contract theory that were consigned to Hegel in the Critique.  

Social contract theory begins with the abstraction of the “individual” in the state of nature that Hegel’s Rechtsphilosophie locates in the bourgeois state, whether monarchial or parliamentary.  The Individuum of the social contract is not a datum of nature, but a consequence of the division of labor.[4]  The division of labor, in turn, is the basis of the parceling out of human beings into social classes, which assume a permanent mystified political form in feudalism and are de-politicized with the advent of industrial systems of production.   Social contract theory, and by implication the modern political idea of sovereignty, reflects this actual modern trend which has secretly baptized the inexorable mutation of homo politicus into homo oeconomicus through the dissolution of the Medieval estates and the etherealization of all concrete relationships and “forms of intercourse” into the thoroughly abstract binary of labor versus capital.

Marx and Engels, however, aim both to identify “general essence” (allgemeines Wesen)  of humanity and to chart its historical realization through revolutionary activity beyond both its sacral political hierarchization, as in Medieval society, and its pseudo-egalitarian iteration as the ideal of liberal democratic state.  The futuristic goal of communism amounts to a reconstitution, a genuine dialectical Aufhebung, of the “natural” condition of intercourse (Verkehr) preceding the formation of classes through the division of labor. 

Communism differs from all previous movements in that it overturns the basis of all earlier relations of production and intercourse, and for the first time consciously treats all natural premises as the creatures of hitherto existing men, strips them of their natural character and subjugates them to the power of the united individuals. Its organisation is, therefore, essentially economic, the material production of the conditions of this unity; it turns existing conditions into conditions of unity. The reality, which communism is creating, is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals, insofar as reality is only a product of the preceding intercourse of individuals themselves.

Here Marx and Engels employ fairly recondite German technical philosophical language that is difficult to transpose into the more familiar idiom of contemporary economic theory.    But in attempting to decipher the rhetoric of The German Ideology it becomes obvious that Marx and Engels have their own mystified notion of “community” (Gemeinschaft) which both antedates and postdates the historical processes, in the latter case the “communist utopia”.  The distinction between the “social” (sozial) and “common” (gemein) was embedded in German idealism and had a significant influence on the social theorists of Continental Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century, including such luminaries as Ferdinand Tönnies and Emile Durkheim.   It also correlated broadly with the Hegelian distinction between the “universal” and the “concrete”. 

For Marx and Engels the crystallization of the proletariat as the totality of both living labor and the universal class creates the historical conditions for the global revival of Gemeinschaft in the guise of the communist eschatology. “ It is human history with its separation of laborers into classes, and ongoing struggle between these classes, that is now nearing its climax. According to Marx and Engels, “up till now…the communal relationship into which the individuals of a class entered, and which was determined by their common interests over against a third party, was always a community [Gemeinschaft] to which these individuals belonged only as average individuals, only insofar as they lived within the conditions of existence of their class — a relationship in which they participated not as individuals but as members of a class.”[5] 

The ripening of historical conditions, especially the universal condition of alienated labor as the outcome of capitalist methods of social organization, indicates now, however, the immediate prospect for the universal recovery of labor’s contribution to the system of industrial productivity through the affirmation of world worker communal solidarity.  

With the community of revolutionary proletarians, on the other hand, who take their conditions of existence and those of all members of society under their control, it is just the reverse; it is as individuals that the individuals participate in it. It is just this combination of individuals (assuming the advanced stage of modern productive forces, of course) which puts the conditions of the free development and movement of individuals under their control — conditions which were previously abandoned to chance and had won an independent existence over against the separate individuals just because of their separation as individuals, and because of the necessity of their combination which had been determined by the division of labour, and through their separation had become a bond alien to them.[6]  

The focus in this passage on the “separation” (Trennung) of individuals in class society is telling, because it implies that the respective configurations of society corresponding to the various and unfolding systems of economic production are somehow unnatural.  Marx and Engels repeatedly employ the word zufällig, or “accidental”.  The condition of labor in what might perhaps be characterized as its natural state is coincides with relations of production where one receives back equitably what one puts into it, and where the forms of social organization are earmarked by mutual aid and support of all members.  In many respects the Marxian communist idyll is merely a more granular portrait of Rousseau’s state of nature.  The common denominator between Rousseau and Marx is they both see the acquisition of private property as equivalent to the Fall of humankind, an outsize political trauma that not only foments widespread economic and social inequality but enslaves individual beings to each other while estranging them from their true character, their Gattungsdasein.  Both Rousseau and Marx talk about being bound up through class societies as in “chains”.[7] 

Nonetheless, Rousseau envisioned the emancipation of enchained humanity through establishment of a republican form of government, whereas Marx and Engels looked toward the end of government altogether.  For Marx and Engels, the key to emancipation is not political, but social and economic.  It system of production determines the system of political participation, and only a transformation of the former will lead to authentic emancipation.  In fact, not only the state, but politics itself will no longer be necessary. 

Marx and Engels describe this eventuality as the changeover from “activity” (Betätigkeit) to “self-activity” (Selbstbetätigkeit), which corresponds to living labor without its self-alienation under state domination. Labor and the social “forms of intercourse” are now is the sphere for the realization of concrete universality, where activity that is merely in Hegelian parlance “in itself” (an sich), or alienated from itself for the sake of another (für sich), is transformed into a communal project that is now “in and for itself” (an und für sich). It is no longer divided or estranged from itself as private property, or as class divisions. “The transformation of labour into self-activity corresponds to the transformation of the earlier limited intercourse into the intercourse of individuals as such. With the appropriation of the total productive forces through united individuals, private property comes to an end.”[8]

Marx’s writings prior to 1848 show a profound concern for popular “sovereignty” in the most radical sense, even though he rarely invokes after the Critique other than in a few scattered cases where he is attacking his critics.  Marx’s reluctance to invoke the term  evidently has to do with its familiar association with the theory of the state and the authority of the laws, political concepts which his view of history and his understanding of proletarian revolution proscribe. In contrast to Rousseau, Marx is suspicious of any concept of the general will.  Another reason is that the idea of popular sovereignty historically was intimately connected with the institutions of parliamentary democracy, which Marx dismissed as the offspring of the feudal principles of the “estates” and of historic class divisions.  In the 1843 manuscripts he cites Hegel’s paradigm of sovereignty, “the ideality of the state’s particular spheres and functions”, as illustrating this deception.[9]  But there is a deeper and far more subtle intimation of what sovereignty might mean if we examine, Marx goes on to say, the “species-being” of human life apart from the state along with every instance of “ideality”. 

Here Marx’s well-known critique of religion comes into play.  Sovereignty from the late Middle Ages forward entailed to some degree a divine certification of political authority.  But Marx construes sovereignty in this setting as a vicious circle.  The sovereign is made sovereign by divine authority, but it is the authority of the sovereign that declares what is truly divine, and what is not.  Sovereignty as a theopolitical construct turns out to be simply a mystification of the political power of the state.  Such an image of sovereignty propagates the hidden alienation of human beings from each other in their strict class distinctions as members of civil, or political, society, which both extracts and abstracts them from the immediacy and familiarity of common life in the context of Gemeinschaft.  

In short, “identity politics” is the very signature from Marx’s point of view of capitalist exploitation, a point that never seems to find a way to penetrate the adamantine skulls of academic “Marxists”.  It is the state control of minds and bodies through the subterfuge of formal slogan of “equity, diversity, and inclusion.”  It is an ingenious classificatory apparatus designed to cover over the reality of class exploitation that props up the pseudo-religious mystique of every progressive neoliberal regime that has risen to prominence in the “information age”.   It prevents them from becoming persons by constraining their psyches to think of themselves only as individuals defined by their class membership, which in turn is stipulated by the elite ideology. 

Marx explains this tromp l’oeil as follows: “the members of the political state are religious through the dualism between individual life and species-life, between the life of civil society and political life; religious in that man relates to the life of the state, which is foreign to his actual individuality, as though it were his true life; religious in so far as religion here is the spirit of civil society, the expression of the separation and the distancing of man from man.”[10]  In the 1840s such a state was officially “Christian.”  But Marx notes in the essay “On the Jewish Question” that actual Christianity as an historical movement sought to abolish the sovereignty of the state in the name of a divine kingdom that was yet to come.  In that respects early Christianity can be taken as the bearer of a radical sovereignty that supersedes the state, at least sub specie aeternitatis.    

Political democracy is Christian in that in it man – not only one man, but every man – has value as a sovereign being, the highest being, but this is man in his uncultivated, unsocial aspect, man in his accidental existence, man just as he is, corrupted by the entire organisation of our society, lost to himself, alienated, under the domination of inhuman relationships and elements – in a word, man who is not yet an actual species-being. The fantasy, the dream, the postulate of Christianity, namely the sovereignty of man – but man as an alien being, different from actual man – is in democracy a sensuous reality, presence, secular maxim.[11] 

Indeed, Christianity offers a kind of template for popular sovereignty, or democracy, in the radical Marxian meaning of becoming a “sensuous reality.”  The communist revolution will transform it into a “presence”, or a “secular maxim”.

In other words, communism is the “kingdom of God” realized within the space of human life and temporality.  It brings, if we may flaunt Marx’s own well-known turn of phrase, “heaven down to earth.”  The kingdom of God is not a monarchial kingdom where all political truth and authority is invested in the singular persona of the God-King, or God-Man-King, but in the communio sanctorum, the manifestation of the cosmic Christ-event as the spiritually self-activated corpus Christi, the body of believers in radical relationship to each other. The communio sanctorum is also a situation of radical equality.  The Apostle Paul denotes it as a form of organismic spiritual solidarity in which the formal distinctions of the righteous and unrighteous under the reign of “law” are abolished.  

All finite beings are not present to each other in an infinite manner through recognition of each other as manifestations of the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus.  Paul puts it in intimate familial terms, the accepted mode of both moral and legal recognition in the ancient world. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”  As in “communism” formal identity and political distinctions which typify and classify as well as set individuals at odds with each other are erased.  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[12]

One of the problems with “Marxism,” which has become its own ideology even in light of its own claim to have criticized all ideologies, is that insights such as the one referenced above do not reflect the general drift of even Marx’s own thought.  Marx’s intuition of popular sovereignty, that is, his glimpse of the radically relational signification of human beings as species-being in the early 1840s, was eclipsed a year later in 1844 when he began his collaboration with Engels and turned from political critique to developing a theory of revolution.  It is well-known that Engels, who enjoyed first-hand knowledge of the horrendous factory conditions in England and was involved in on-the-ground organizing activity among the working class, increasingly drove Marx to take a more “empirical” approach and to advance the communist movement as a practical political enterprise with the goal of imminent revolution.

The Communist Manifesto of course was the prompt display of Marx’s and Engels’  undertakings in the mid-1840s.  Marx and Engels were the intellectual vanguard of the failed revolutions across all of Europe from 1848-51.  As numerous historians have underscored, the collapse of those revolutions stemmed from the disconnect between the educated, liberal elites who sought the overthrow of all remaining feudal institutions and monarchial control of parliaments and the spontaneous uprisings of the immiserated underclasses in the wake of rapid industrialization and urbanization.  The wretched circumstances under which the latter subsisted, which was known in the early part of the nineteenth century as the “social question”, collided with the political ambitions of the liberal bourgeoisie, most of whom feared the underclasses as much as the old aristocracy. 

The suppression of the 1848 uprisings ironically constituted a political setback for the bourgeoisie on much of the Continent with liberalization of the political system having to wait for several decades, while it opened the way for rapid forced social transformation and modest economic reforms that in the long run made the proletariat less revolutionary than it had been just prior to the onset of the turmoil of those fateful years.[13]   Once the social revolution prophesied in The Communist Manifesto came to nought alongside its political counterpart, Marx and Engels were compelled to take refuge in England, and Marx spent the next decade scraping to keep his family alive while devoting himself exclusively to research at the British Museum.  Marx the scholar replaced Marx the revolutionary, and his agenda turned to coming up with a truly credible and “scientific” strategy for theorizing both the demise of capitalism and the historical necessity of proletarian revolution. 

In his Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (“Outline for the Critique of Political Economy”, customarily referenced merely as the Grundrisse), published in 1857 and often considered the ground plan as well for the later three volumes of Capital, Marx makes his new methodology clear.  On the one hand, Marx offers the familiar refrain that “It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete.”  Yet in the same sentence he changes the starting point for any future Kritik which is “the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production.”.[14]  The allusion here to “the population” smacks oddly of what Foucault would later tab as the idea of biopolitics, the conceptual architecture for the advent in the next century for neoliberalism.  Marxism, of course, is not per se a forerunner to neoliberalism, but the routine resort to neoliberal forms of rhetoric by identity theorists with overt sympathies for Marx’s work, misleadingly but not altogether wrongly branded by conservatives as “cultural Marxists”, indicates perhaps why Marxism as an empirical philosophy of social and economic change has lost its clout. 

It is at this point that Marx, having flirted with it and even rejected the labor theory of value in the previous period, adopted it once and for all.  The labor theory of value, routinely but falsely attributed to Marx, was already a well-accepted principle of political economy, first clearly enunciated by Smith in the 1770s but tracing its way implicitly all the way back to Locke.  Marx at this point also cast his lot with the nascent “science” of econometrics, seeking to quantify in a rather elementary manner the various iterations of the notion of “value”, familiar to political economists, from labor to land to capital.  It was out of these simple econometric exercises, first evident in the Grundrisse, that Marx’s complex theory of capital as surplus value, both fixed and variable, emerges.  It is for this reason that Marx can authentically be said to be the first to analyze “capitalism” as we understand it today, rather than merely finding a new name for productive surpluses as the output of market interactions, which the classical economists had already adequately profiled. 

What is missing most in Marx’s thought after 1850, however, is his radical political discovery in the 1849s of sovereignty as community rather than as a system of political representation, whether monarchial or parliamentary.  In many respects it was only a flash that can be discerned here and there among other concerns.  Marx never wanted to be right but unrecognized.  He wanted to make a difference throughout his lifetime, and it was of course the influence of Engels that lured him away from what might be designated as his “anthropological” preoccupations in his very early career. But it is this anthropological acumen that more than two centuries now after Marx’s birth that make him highly relevant, even after “scientific materialism” has now vanished into the wastebin of outmoded ideas. 

Marx was never able convincingly, except perhaps in the immediate aftermath of World War I, to advance any theory of the ironclad “laws” of historical change and economic development that could have any sort of predictive capacity, as the social sciences all along have always been determined to accomplish.  But in an era when the social sciences themselves are in a major crisis beyond their ability to perform surveys and make trivial descriptive generalizations the “unscientific” proto-Marxism that was relinquished around 1845 may be valuable to assist us in thinking new thoughts about where we stand today.  The Marxian suggestion that we must look to the meaning of community as the key to sovereignty with both a political and economic twist may be clues to a new direction in which we find ourselves headed.

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] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (Amherst NY: Prometheus Books 1988), 7.

[2] Op. cit., 61.

i3] Op. cit., 62.

[4] Op. cit., 85.

[5] Op. cit., 84..

[6] Op. cit., 84-5.

[v7] Rosseau , Le Contrat Social: “L’homme est né libre et partout il est dans les fers”Marx and Engels, Die Deutsche Ideologie:Die scheinbare Gemeinschaft, zu der sich bisher die Individuen vereinigten, verselbständigte sich stets ihnen gegenüber und war zugleich, da sie eine Vereinigung einer Klasse gegenüber einer andern war, für die beherrschte Klasse nicht nur eine ganz illusorische Gemeinschaft, sondern auch eine neue Fessel.”

[8] The German Ideology, op. cit., 94.

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

[10] Op. cit., 41.

[11] Op. cit.

[12] Galatians 3:26-28, NIV.

[13] Summarize literature on 1848.

[14] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 100.

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