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A Few Words on the German Ideology

Views: 570 The ideas in The German Ideology (TGI) have had great influence over the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) and all of the SPGB’s companion …

by Joe Hopkins



11 min read

Photo originally published on Bookshop.org.

The ideas in The German Ideology (TGI) have had great influence over the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) and all of the SPGB’s companion parties which make up the World Socialist Movement (WSM)[i]. Because the WSM is made up of thousands and thousands of party comrades and fellow travelers these ideas deserve some exposition as they are primary to Marx’s theory of socialism as a whole and provide and determine the substance of his logical synthesis. One idea naturally leads to the next and their combined logic support the following conclusion. In this regard Marx reveals himself as a master dialectician. It is important to remember that all acts in the material world had their beginning in the human imagination, sparked by the material world itself.

I will discuss the contents of The German Ideology, the book’s uniqueness, and its meaning as far as possible in such a brief space. This discussion will be aided by assessing and addressing an argument made against the book and what it represents by a senior research fellow of the Hoover Institution named W.W. Bartley, III[ii]. I will provide a conclusive antithesis to Bartley’s argument with particular attention given to Bartley’s attack on Marx’s formulation and theory of “alienation”. Marx’s theory of alienation will be gone into and explained − a sociological definition of alienation will be given as well as an historic and contemporary example. There will be some closing comments.

The Book

The German Ideology was written between September 1845 and the summer of 1846. It represents a strikingly important advance in social theory. Before writing The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would not have been considered especially different from Ludwig Feuerbach or Moses Hess by their contemporaries. It was in this book that they departed from German philosophy and its embraided idealism − whose primary exemplar for them was Hegel − and distinguished Marxian socialist theory from all the various “socialisms” current at the time.

The German Ideology represents a synthetic world outlook that was later christened “historical materialism”. Perhaps the most fundamental idea expressed in TGI is “man produces himself through labour”; i.e., he does not have a fixed and unchanging “human nature” that is essentially determined biologically (as was the assertion of Adam Smith and has become popular with modern day sociobiologists). Rather, there is a dialectical relationship between human nature as determined by the material conditions of social life and the transformative results of human praxis−“action”−[iii] in and on those conditions. Labour, in the broadest sense, is the connexion between the two. Of great importance to this relationship, as expressed in TGI, is Marx’s insight into and analysis of alienation.

“Alienation” relates directly back to human nature in that labour power becomes alienated from a worker when that person is made to operate as an impersonal productive profit generating device. The labour power expended (conditioned activity sold) is not a free choice but under the control and direction of a boss − it becomes behaviour[iv] − so that the changes brought about in the worker’s material conditions are not those that would have resulted as the natural consequences of the worker’s action, had those activities been such, by being self-directed and under the control of the worker. This results in workers not only being alienated from their labour power per se, but by producing distorted and alien material conditions more in conformity with those interests of the master class the worker becomes alienated from working-class interests of solidarity and his social species being; that is, his or her very self. ADD EMPTY LINE

Marx also focuses his attention on a critique of the state and the importance of civil society. Civil society is here clearly defined[v]. Marx shows the implicit connexion between civil society and political economy and examines many of its ramifications.

There is a wealth of ideas and unconventional perspectives in The German Ideology, the depth of which cannot be fathomed here. TGI warrants and rewards an especially close reading even (or particularly) by repeat readers.

The Argument Against the Book

W.W. Bartley, III contributed four chapters to a book published in 1987 that he holds joint copyright on, titled Evolutionary Epistemology, Theory of Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge. The chapter which should interest many Marxian socialists i.e., scientific socialists, is titled “Alienation Alienated: The Economics of Knowledge Versus the Psychology and Sociology of Knowledge”. (Bartley, p. 423) The second section of this chapter is subtitled “Marx’s Paris Manuscripts”. (p. 426)

Though the Paris manuscripts were discovered years earlier they weren’t published until 1932. At that time Herbert Marcuse wrote:

The publication of the economic and philosophic manuscripts [of which The German Ideology is a part] … must become a crucial event in the history of Marxist studies. These manuscripts could put the discussion about the origins and original meaning of historical materialism, and the entire theory of scientific socialism on a new footing. (p. 426)[vi]

Bartley writes:

Just such a new footing has been attempted. These manuscripts are supposed to show that the core of Marx’s thought, best illustrated by his doctrine of alienation, is “humanistic” … Such a new footing is recommended not only by western   writers …; Similar interpretations of true Marxism are also sometimes advocated in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia to combat official – vulgar Marxist – Communist theory. (The idea of alienation itself, of course, arises already in Hegel … in the contention that everything is a facet of human consciousness…) (p. 427)

Bartley then insists:

[I]f these critics are correct about Marx himself, what they say is also largely irrelevant to what Hayek and Popper were chiefly trying to do – namely, to deal with the chief doctrines of Marxism and socialism as they have been represented and advocated during the past hundred years[vii]. … Yet these critics are not right about Marx, and what they say about him has now been shown to be false. … For Marx never published The Paris Manuscripts … Already in 1846, in The German Ideology, Marx’s only explicit references to alienation are derisive. Long-standing suspicions about the status of these manuscripts now seem to be confirmed by the work of Dutch researcher, Jürgen Rojahn, who, in December 1982, in Linz, at an international conference of labor historians, reported on nearly a decade of work on the Paris manuscripts. These manuscripts, preserved in Amsterdam, are, he argues, no more than a collection of rough ideas and working notes, chiefly concerning the young student Karl Marx’s reading of Hegel, Adam Smith, and others. Noting that the manuscripts were often loose and in random order, Rojahn scrutinized page size, page numbers, Marx’s own writing, number of columns used, and such like, and concluded that these manuscripts were clearly never intended for publication, (emphasis in original) and probably should have no formal status at all. (p. 427−428)

The Antithesis

It seems best to address Bartley’s last assertion first because in logical priority the origin and existence of The German Ideology is of first-rank importance to the debate on the contents and meaning of the book. To start off with, Bartley’s attack against the book, made by proxy via Jürgen Rojahn, will be critised. Bartley’s several ancillary arguments will then be addressed.

Rojahn bases his conclusion entirely on induction. Bartley tells us so himself. The defects of induction are well known: conclusions are neither complete nor strictly necessary according to the formal principles of logic, and arbitrariness is involved in the selection of data. It is only common sense and a tenet of vigorous scholarly debate (or even barroom arguing) for someone trying to convince anyone of anything to put forth their strongest evidence. What Rojahn puts forth is a jumble of speculation.

C.J. Arthur, on the other hand, tells us in his Editor’s Preface to The German Ideology that:

In May 1846 the major part of the manuscript of volume 1 was sent from Brussels to Joseph Weydemeyer in Westphalia. Weydemeyer was to make arrangements for the publication of the book with the financial support that had been promised by two local businessman, the “true” socialists Julius Meyer and Rudolph Rempel. But after the bulk of the manuscript of volume 2 had arrived in Westphalia, Meyer and Rempel informed Marx that they were unwilling to finance the publication of The German Ideology. In 1846−47 Marx and Engels made repeated attempts to find a publisher in Germany for their work; their efforts were, however, unsuccessful. This was due partly to difficulties made by the police and partly to the reluctance of the publishers to print the work since their sympathies were on the side of the trends attacked by Marx and Engels. (p. 6–7)[viii]

In Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer wrote: ‘The dichotomy, the fell difference, between “dumb” and “stupid” is that being dumb is being weak mentally, and while that’s sad, it’s permanent. Being stupid means a choice has been made not to know.’ It may be that Bartley is indeed stupid according to Mailer’s definition. We’ve all encountered those well educated folks who do not seem particularly bright because they lack understanding, but the probability that Bartley is one of these is remote. A logically more available and accessible probability is that Bartley is an apologist and ideologue in support of the status quo. Is Bartley perhaps assuming his readers have chosen to know little or nothing of Marx and his writing? Bartley’s assertions appear to be little more than disinformation intended to exclude alternatives to the world as it is − almost a doctrine amongst those intellectuals who have consciously decided to travel down the road they believe leads to class power.

A more nuanced view of Bartley (and his fellow traveller Jürgen Rojahn) may be apropos for milder times, but on a poisoned and heating planet these are not milder times. The interpretation given above has a well founded explanatory power given the argument Bartley has made so far, it cuts to the bone − of contention − and excises the contention in materialist terms. An alternative to the status quo is now perhaps required to preserve the habitability of this planet.

Bartley seems to be unaware that when an “ism” is appended as a suffix to the personal pronoun of one proposing a plan (especially a new plan), principles, doctrine, or programme, it is almost a sure sign that accretion has taken place, either through an acolyte’s or other’s misunderstanding, or an intentional misunderstanding − that tends to serve the interests of the “misunderstander” − or as an exogenous attempt to distort the programme in an effort to thwart the proposal. So, because the critics are correct about Marx himself it is not irrelevant to Hayek and Popper critising Marx because of an ism having been appended to the end of his name. Hayek and Popper are themselves conflating “Marxism” and “Marxian”. Logically, this means Hayek and Popper are attacking Bolshevism; the polices, projects and programmes of the Bolshevik rulers who seised power and used a perverted form of Marx’s name to imply legitimacy.

The logical conclusion following from this reality is that when Hayek and Popper condemn socialism as an historically failed system − from an exalted and credentialed “intellectual” position no less − what they are truly condemning is the planned command economy that was imposed by a totalitarian state. Opposed to Hayek and Popper’s misunderstandings, Marxian socialism is the establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the world-wide human community through methods and processes that are environmentally neutral or restoratively beneficial (a possibility on a world devoid of money and profit that obviates Marx’s law of value).

It is questionable whether the people of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia spoke out in opposition to “vulgar Marxist” communist theory; or rather against the Bolshevist regime. It is easier than one might think for a totalitarian state to make the vast majority of the facts under its domain correspond to the definition it gives of its object; it is a simple matter to inculcate that the “signifier” (the material element) becomes defined by the regime’s designated “signified” (the concept the signifier is to be associated with). For young children this is best effected by mass public education. For those who were already adults when the Bolsheviks took over government rule there were the state reëducation programmes where it was quite easy for O’Brien, i.e., the rulers of the state, to hold five fingers up in front of Winston Smith’s face in room 101 and have Winston actually see six fingers after sufficient reëducation as George Orwell wrote in his dystopian 1984. This is a global phenomenon in a world where nation-states exist − even (or especially) in “liberal democracies”. Nation states equate to a total environment system where information and perception can be tightly controlled.

Bartley tries to imply that Marx’s formulation of alienation must be nothing new because as he says “the idea of alienation itself, of course, [my emphasis] arises already in Hegel … in the contention that everything is a facet of human consciousness”. (Supra) “Marx’s remarks on alienation provide an account of the relationship between economic conditions and states of mind.” (Bartley, p. 429)

For Hegel alienation is the key to the “phenomenological” development of consciousness and is thus significant only as a psychological concept. Marx, the master dialectician, stood Hegel’s dialectics on its feet[ix]. Marx views alienation as a real concrete issue and not an intellectual one. Alienation for Marx comes as a result of actual interactions between real people in their actual concrete historical developments in the material world. Marx knows that realities exist independent of a knower. Marx saw that the true source of the alienation experienced by people was being produced by the economic structure of society under capitalism − where the system substitutes the economy for society and economic relations rooted in the social relations of production i.e., class relations of power, for human social relations, which is the primary factor in maintaining social and economic domination of workers by the owner class. This describes a major function of political economy – to reduce social relations to market relations.

The German Ideology is from beginning to end a refutation of Hegel. For anyone that is familiar with Hegel this is self-evident from cover to cover. In the “Afterward to the second German edition” of Das Capital Marx spelled it out clearly enough that even ideologues like Bartley could have understood it, if Bartley had read Marx’s works and understanding had been his intention. Marx wrote in his most famous and well read work, Capital, that:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but it’s direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the idea,” he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the idea.” With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. … [x]

Das Capital, being published in 1867, puts Marx’s criticism of Hegel’s dialectic as early as 1837; Marx started penning TGI (as already mentioned) in 1845.

Where Bartley claims that “already in 1846, in The German Ideology, Marx’s only explicit references to alienation are derisive”, (emphasis added) he is perhaps exposing the fact that he has not personally read the material he is criticisqing.

In a discussion, presented in The German Ideology, of history and “world-historical activity” on the part of workers the world over, Marx sees the workers of the world becoming “more and more enslaved under a power alien to them (a pressure which they have conceived of as a dirty trick on the part of the so-called universal spirit, etc.), a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market”. (emphasis in original) p. 55

On the following page, after speaking derisively of the “universal spirit” (a jibe at Hegel’s World Spirit) turning out to be the world market, he does it again by writing: “This ‘alienation’ (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an ‘intolerable’ power, i.e., a power against which men make revolution…”(p. 56) Here Marx denigrates the limited understanding of contemplative philosophers (like Hegel), of whom he became derisive, and postulates “alienation” as having the power to cause a revolution. Hardly a statement of derision about alienation. This is only one example of many that clearly refutes not only the only in Bartley’s claim, supra, but of Bartley himself as a dependable scholar and researcher with integrity.

A Scientific Definition and Description of Alienation

The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology defines “alienation” in pertinent part as the “estrangement of individuals from one another, or from a specific situation or process”, that the “estrangement is a consequence of social structures which oppress people, denying them their essential humanity,” and “alienation is the distorted form that humanity’s objectification of its species-being takes under capitalism.” Under capitalism labour is reduced to a commodity to be traded on the market and “work comes to be a meaningless activity” in itself, only done to pay the bills, “offering little or no intrinsic satisfactions.” Alienation causes “feelings of powerlessness, isolation, and discontent at work − especially when this takes place within the context of large, impersonal, bureaucratic social organizations.” (pgs. 12−13)[xi]

A Historical Account of Alienation

A fine example of what Marx meant by the term “alienation” in practicare is given by Paul Mantoux as he describes the changing social cum economic relations of a weaver of wool in England under nascent capitalism as it slowly developed. The changing relations of the weaver is here the surest sign of capitalist development.

Mantoux writes that after receiving the wool from the spinner, the weaver

kept all the outward semblance of independence, he worked at home on his own loom. He even sometimes played the part of employer, and took charge of the manufacture. He often had the carding and spinning done at his own expense. He supplied tools and some of the minor raw materials of production. … In these circumstances he was naturally inclined to consider himself not as a workman, but as a contractor dealing on terms with a rich client.

But he was poor. After deducting from the money he paid himself, there was very little left. If it was a bad year and the harvest was deficient, he was in difficulties. He had to borrow, and who was the most likely person to lend if not the merchant who employed him? The merchant was generally willing to lend him money, but he needed security, and the readiest pledge was the weaver’s loom which, after becoming the means of earning mere wages, now ceased to be the exclusive property of the producer. In this way, … the implement in its turn fell into the capitalist’s hands. From the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, this process of alienation, slow and unnoticed, took place almost wherever home industry had been at all impaired. So much so that at last the merchant clothier owned the wool, the yarn, the loom, the stuff, together with the mill where the cloth was fulled and the shop where it was sold. In certain branches of the woolen industry, where the plant was more elaborate and therefore more expensive, the capitalist gained control more quickly and more completely.[xii]

A Modern Social Consequence of Alienation

The alienation rooted in the relations of production in the capitalist political economy ramify throughout the human population. The symptoms of this alienation present themselves everywhere, everyday, everywhen.

An article in the Socialist Standard reported that the

“sense of crushing alienation … is now inescapable …Housing is designed according to the cheap measurements of profits for rapacious landlords. The transport system is unsafe and its weary users shuffle ritualistically to and from wage slavery in various conditions of unease, stress and anger … Basic needs are too expensive to bother with … This is our environment. For most of us our environment is not about trees and forest and fish pounds; these are out of reach and survival within the urban wasteland is about dodging the dog mess and hoping it will be someone else’s house that they break into.

“An alienated world of non-community turns others into strangers and strangers into enemies. People turn in on themselves and draw lines like stone fortress walls around their lives, their emotions.”[xiii]

Alienation looks a lot like apathy, no? But alienation often has an aggressive anti-social side that is less often found in the “merely” apathetic. The WSM holds that to reduce alienation and bring people together into a worldwide community the capitalist system must be overthrown. If this theory is correct, by the abolition of the wages system and the establishment of production for use and free access to all of life’s needs the curse of nationalism will be lifted. All Marxian socialists know that borders are scars on the face of the planet. With the ideologically constructed division (di-vision: differing visions) of nationalism removed the rallying cry “Workers of the World Unite” can finally become a reality.

Some Parting Thoughts

For a great many of Marxian socialists Marx is not just an historical figure, but a brilliant, concerned, thoughtful participant in the all important conversation taking place right here, right now. The history of the capitalist system, with its boom times and then its slumps with protracted stagnation, perhaps bequeathes to us this historical moment of social, economic and political disruption for considering ways to negate the ideas and forces which shaped the present world system in the interest of a powerful minority and to replace it with a democratic system of production and provision, not rationing life’s needs in accordance with the number of pounds or dollars, franks, yuan, drachma or pesos, etc. in our, the ninety-nine percent’s, pockets.

[i]     The World Socialist Movement is comprised of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its thirty branches including Ireland and Scotland and its World Socialist Party companion parties located in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States (Info at www.worldsocialism.org)

[ii]    W.W. Bartley, III (born 1934) is Senior Research Fellow of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford University. Author of biographies of Friedrich von Hayek and Sir Karl Popper; he has also written numerous books on morality and religion, Wittgenstein, Werner Erhard and edited many other volumes. Bartley was formerly professor of philosophy and of history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh and has been associate professor at the University of California, a lecturer at the University of London (Warburg Institute and the London School of Economics). He has also been a Fellow of Gonville and Cais College, Cambridge University. He is a member of the Mont Pèlerin Society and also of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the Theory of Science in Vienna

[iii]   “A defining quality of action is that, unlike behaviour, it carries a subjective meaning for the actor.” Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, John Scott and Gordon Marshall, eds., (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 3.

[iv]   “Behavior is seen in terms of an identifiable and measurable response to external or internal, recognizable, and measurable stimuli. The response can be modified by reward or various forms of discouragement – a process known as conditioning.” Ibid, p. 33.

[v]    Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology − Part One (International Publishers Co., Inc., 1947; revised translation 1970), p. 57.

[vi]   Quoted from: Herbert Marcuse, Studies in Critical Philosophy, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), p. 3.

[vii]  See: Friedrich von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, (Routledge, 1944); Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, (Routledge, 1945)

[viii] Marx mentions the problems that thwarted his efforts to publish The German Ideology – cited by C.J. Arthur in his Editor’s Preface, supra – in a letter to P.V. Annenkov dated December 28, 1846. Marx-Engels Selected Works, Vol. II, (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1958), p. 452.

[ix]   “The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mythical shell.” (Karl Marx, Capital − Volume One, (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970 [1867]), p. 19.)

[x]    Karl Marx, Ibid, p. 20.

[xi]   Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, p. 12–13.

[xii]  Paul Mantoux, The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century − an Outline of the Beginnings of the Modern Factory System in England, (Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1961 [1928]), p. 64−65.

[xiii] Socialist Standard − Journal of the Socialist Party of Great Britain − Companion Party of the World Socialist Movement, (January, 1994), cited in, Socialism or Your Money Back − Articles From the Socialist Standard 1904−2004, (Published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, 2004), p. 277−78.

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