Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
This book is an exposition of Marx’s vision, generally referred to as the materialist conception of history, historical materialism, dialectical materialism and also his worldview. Marx himself referred to it as his “materialist method”, which he used to study capitalist development that he thought would eventually lead to the establishment of a communist society. This vision was completed before Marx was 30 years old. It was first presented in a systematic and integrated manner in The German Ideology (1846) and then in 1848 in The Communist Manifesto (both written with Frederick Engels).
The exposition traces the intellectual and political development of Marx from his student days to the writing of The Manifesto. The focus is on his writings during this period, though extensive references are made to his later works for elucidation and elaboration.
There were two important influences on the early development of Marx, his father who was a real Enlightenment man, steeped in the works of Voltaire and Rousseau, and a neighbour, Ludwig von Westphalen, a high ranking Prussian official and a man with aristocratic connections. According to one of Marx’s daughters, Westphalen took the young Marx, while still at school, for long walks discussing with him Homer and Goethe. Marx would later dedicate his doctoral dissertation to him. He will also marry his daughter.
Marx’s school leaving essay (at the age of 17) shows a young man with lofty thoughts, personally ambitious and eager to work for the good of humanity. “One can attain his own perfection only by working for the perfection, for the good of his fellow men.” The same spirit will be later shown in the foreword to his doctoral dissertation where he refers to Prometheus as the “most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar” and applauds his defiance of the gods. Here was a young man who was out to change the world for the better.
Marx joined Berlin University at the age of 18 (1836). After a year’s study he embraced Hegelian philosophy. At this time he thought that Hegel’s philosophy could provide a guide to changing the world (though he had no idea of what kind of changed world he wanted). He took from Hegel two ideas that would be critical elements in the development of his thought.
First, in Hegel’s system of thought society is conceptualised in organic terms, thus rejecting the idea that society is a voluntary association formed by autonomous, rational individuals to further their private ends. In opposition to this individualist standpoint, in Hegel’s thought society and its institutions are seen as having evolved organically, individuals are seen to be related to each other as parts of an organism, and individual rationality and morality are considered as products of society. In this view there is an inherent logic in the working of society and therefore limited scope for manipulation (or ‘social engineering’) by the conscious human agency.
Second, in the Hegelian view, history is a process of development, of organic growth, development taking place from lower to higher formations. It is a rational process, there is an inherent logic that drives society forward, without the aid of any extraneous factor (such as the actions of great men).
The formation of Marx’s own philosophical standpoint would develop with a critique of two other aspects of Hegel’s thought. The first was Hegel’s philosophical idealism. According to this viewpoint reality as we know it has no independent existence, it is an expression of thought (spirit, God). Second, Hegel considered the modern state as an ethical entity, morally superior to civil society, the domain of private interest. What is more, he thought that this perfect state of affairs had already been realised in countries of Western Europe (countries with developed capitalism). He saw his own philosophy as no more than a retrospective evaluation of the historical process that had brought about this ideal state and society, a process that had been completed.
At this time Marx joined the Young Hegelian movement. Young Hegelians criticised religion and the Prussian autocratic, monarchical government. They emphasised Hegel’s idea that society’s institutions (including religion), after having served useful purposes, through their own working became obsolete. History had not come to an end, it had some way to go yet.
These ideas formed the starting point of Marx’s political thinking.
Marx completed his doctorate in philosophy in the spring of 1841. He had hoped for an academic position, but was unsuccessful (for political reasons). So he turned to political journalism.
We see at this time (early 1842) Marx struggling with his philosophical position. This is shown by the fact that he keeps promising his friend Arnold Ruge, a Young Hegelian who was editing a radical journal, articles for publication that he is unable to deliver. One of these promised articles was intended to be a critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the state.
In May 1842 Marx started contributing to a liberal bourgeois newspaper published in Cologne. Four months later he was appointed Editor (and turned the newspaper into a staunch organ of opposition). Now for the first time Marx confronted economic and social problems of the poor, the oppression suffered by the peasants at the hands of large landowners who exercised enormous political power. This was a critically important experience in the development of his thought. He was no longer a Young Hegelian, who generally shunned economic and social problems.
After editing the newspaper for four months Marx resigned as Editor. He thought that censor restrictions had made life impossible.
It is at this time (March 1843) that Marx had his first, momentous breakthrough in the development of his thought. I mentioned earlier that Marx had a year earlier wanted to write a critique of Hegel’s theory of the state and despite repeated promises was unable to deliver. It is suggested that Marx’s difficulty lay in the fact that he did not have an appropriate methodology to criticise Hegel’s theory, and that this difficulty was resolved with the publication in February 1843 of Feuerbach’s Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy. Marx wrote to Ruge in March, saying that Feuerbach’s theses were correct in every respect, except that they did not deal with politics.
In the Theses Feuerbach reversed the Hegelian relationship between thought (consciousness, spirit, God) and reality, a relationship in which reality was merely an expression of thought. Feuerbach asserted the opposite: man was not an expression or attribute of God or spirit…
This was the methodological insight Marx used to develop his own critique of Hegel’s theory of the state. Here we have the beginning of Marx’s materialist conception.
Hegel’s theory of the state is a theory of the modern state, which developed at the same time in Western Europe as capitalism, say in the 16th and 17th centuries. In pre-capitalist societies there was no clear differentiation between the state and civil society, between the public domain and the private; politics and the economy were intertwined. With the development of capitalism a dualism emerged between the two, the state and civil society, the two became differentiated. Hegel’s theory of the state claims to show how the problem of dualism was resolved, how civil society evolved to be cast in the image of the state (an ethical entity), how the individual was reintegrated with society, of course, at a higher level of historical development. I have discussed this aspect of Hegel’s theory at some length. I have suggested that this theory provides a philosophical rationale of modern capitalism.
The point I have emphasised is that Marx accepted that there was a problem of dualism, that there was such a thing as an ideal society, without dualism, one in which individualism of civil society would be overcome, and the individual would become integrated with society,in which the individual will obey the laws of society as the laws of his own reason. His criticism of Hegel focused on the latter’s failure to resolve the problem.
Further, Marx extended Feuerbach’s concept of alienation (confined to the realm of religion) to politics – the state is man’s relinquished self. Man is alienated in the realm of politics. A year later he would extend this concept to the realm of economics: capital, a product of labour, is man’s relinquished self.Man will really be free when he has overcome his self-alienation in all the three realms of religion, politics and economy, when he has reclaimed the powers that he has conferred on the institutions of his own creation.
Marx’s idea of what a communist society would be like is beginning to take form at this point – when he is definitely not a communist and has not studied socialist and communist thought. The future ideal society will have overcome dualism between politics and the economy, man will become fully integrated with society so that there will be no distinction and tension between the general interest of society and the private interest of the individual. Man will also have overcome his alienation in all spheres of life.
Equally fundamentally, Marx’s adoption of Feuerbach’s reversal of the relationship between thought and reality led to the shifting the focus of inquiry from philosophical speculation to study of civil society, that is, to social analysis. The reversal of the Hegelian relationship for Marx meant that to understand politics one had to study the working of society, the economy. If you wanted to change society you had to start at the bottom, not the top.
Soon after his resignation from the newspaper he was editing, Marx got married to Jenny von Westphalen and settled down in his mother-in-law’s house in Bad Kreuznach and launched himself into the study of the history and theory of the state, and the history of a number of countries and the French Revolution. It is here that he wrote his critique of Hegel. It is a 130-page monograph,first published in 1927. Immediately after the completion of the Hegel critique, Marx wrote another article with the title On the Jewish Question in which he continued the discussion of the Hegel critique. Soon after, in October 1843, Marx, now 25 years old, left for Paris.
The reason for Marx’s move to Paris was that he and Arnold Ruge had decided to publish a radical political-philosophical journal that would be free from censorship restrictions. Ruge, who was a man of independent means, was making the investment and promised Marx a salary on which he and his wife could live in comfort.
The first (and the only) issue of the journal carried two articles by Marx, On the Jewish Question and Introduction to the Hegel critique. The latter was written after Marx arrived in Paris. The idea of a communist society, as the ideal state, was now beginning to take a definite shape.
The article On the Jewish Question was a polemical response to an article by Bruno Bauer, a leading figure in the Young Hegelian movement. Bauer discussed the demand of German Jews for the same civic rights enjoyed by other Germans. He argued that German Jews should demand the “emancipation” of all Germans. Bauer was arguing a case for a secular, liberal bourgeois state in Germany.
Marx used the occasion to develop a critique of the classical political liberalism. A liberal bourgeois state would of course be a step forward in a country like Germany, but it was a far cry from his ideal state. Against Bauer’s “political emancipation” Marx set the idea of “human emancipation”, a state in which man will “no longer separate social power from himself in the shape of political power.” We see here also the first intimation of the idea of alienation in the realm of economy with reference to money as the power of an “alien being”.
Soon after, or perhaps during the writing of the Jewish Question article, Marx was beginning to think of how the social change that he was contemplating could come about, and the agency that will bring such a change. In the Introduction to the Hegel critique Marx identified the proletariat as the agent of change. He referred to it as the “universal class” because it could not free itself without freeing the entire society.
During his time in Paris Marx met all the leading socialists of France. For the first time he met working class people, both French and German. There was a large number of Germans – mainly artisans – in Paris, many of them organised in social or political associations, some as secret societies. One of them had a branch in London, which would later be reorganised as the Communist League for which he and Engels would write The Communist Manifesto.
During this period Marx read widely in the history of materialism, of the French Revolution, and in the field of political economy. It was also here that he met Engels; their lifelong friendship and collaboration can be said to have started at this time (August-September).
It is safe to say that by August 1844 Marx was a communist. In a letter dated the 11th of August he told Feuerbach that he had (knowingly or otherwise) provided a philosophical basis for communism; that is how, he said, communists had read his writings. Marx now had mastered and adopted the concept of materialism, rejected liberalism, come to see private property as the root of social problems, and conceptualised the ideal society as one that would have done away with private property and had overcome political alienation and dualism.
But he was only halfway (perhaps even less) to his complete vision of historical development and communism.
We recall that as Editor of the Cologne newspaper in 1842-43, Marx had come face to face with a number of economic and social issues. He had then felt the need to study these issues more closely, a point he recalled in 1859 in the often-quoted Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Now, in Paris he returned to such issues and, as already noted, undertook a serious study of the works of a large number of political economists. During this period Marx made extensive notes on the works he read. A part of these notes was published for the first time in 1932. The editors of his collected works gave these notes the title of The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. They were written between April and August. As was noted earlier, by this time Marx had become a communist.
In the Manuscripts Marx referred to, and quoted from, the works of numerous writers, but I have argued that the work that had the lasting impact on Marx’s thought was The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. I have suggested that the contribution from Adam Smith (the founder of classical political economy) was of the same magnitude in the development of Marx’s vision as the inversion of Hegel that he received from Feuerbach, the insight that made him a materialist.
Up to the writing of the Manuscripts Marx had been entirely ploughing the philosophical field: his conversion to materialism had resulted from the inversion of Hegel; he had vaguely talked of private property and had equally vaguely referred to money as an “alien being”; and most interestingly, attributed to the proletariat a leading role in changing the world because of its “suffering” and because it was a “universal class”, an expression Hegel had used for the bureaucracy.
Now, in the Manuscripts, we are dealing with capitalism (Smith’s ‘commercial society’), a distinct mode of production, with a class society where the interests of the masters and their workers are not the same; the central social relation is that between capital and labour, and the leading role of the proletariat is now rooted in production. In the Manuscripts there is a great deal of discussion of alienation, but this is now related to the worker in production. From this time on Marx seldom used the word ‘alienation (though of course the concept is there – communist society will be free from all kinds of alienation), but the idea is subsumed in the capital-labour relation and the worker as a producer.
I have argued that in the Manuscripts Marx achieved a synthesis of philosophical standpoint and classical political economy, an advance of enormous importance.
Immediately after the completion of the Manuscripts, Marx wrote (with a small contribution from Engels) The Holy Family. It is essentially a polemical work directed against his old friend Bruno Bauer and his brother, who Marx thought had abandoned their earlier radical outlook. This is the beginning of Marx’s theoretical struggle against German philosophers who had anti-socialist thinking, and against ‘petty bourgeois’ and utopian reformist socialists from his developing communist standpoint.
During his polemic against the Bauer brothers we see Marx making significant theoretical progress. In The Holy Family we see the beginning of Marx’s historical materialism, and the use of the dialectical method.
In November 1844 when The Holy Family was completed, Marx had all the components of his vision of the historical process – except one, and that of fundamental importance: he had yet to work out his own philosophical standpoint to underpin his unique version of the historical process and communism. He was still a Feuerbachian when he wrote the Manuscripts and The Holy Family. In the latter work he specifically stated that ‘old’ materialism provided the basis of socialism.
Marx crossed this last frontier in the spring of 1845. (Marx was now in Brussels, having been expelled from France.) It was in the spring that he wrote his Theses on Feuerbach, 11 propositions of aphoristic nature. These contained his own philosophic position.
Sometime between the completion of The Holy Family and the spring of 1845 Marx must have realised that old materialism, including Feuerbach’s, lacked any dynamic element and therefore could not provide a basis for a theory of historical development. The old materialism treated reality as given datum, objective, something ‘out there’; according to it man’s knowledge, ideas, etc., are determined by man’s brain receiving some kind of mechanical impulses from outside. Mind, man, is treated as passive. In the first thesis Marx rejected all ‘previous’ materialism and adopted his own version. The new view does away with the dualism of reality and man (mind).
The first intimation of this revolutionary thought occurred in the Manuscripts, when Marx applauded Smith’s statement that all the wealth of the nation is the product of labour (the first sentence of The Wealth of Nations). (Eric Rahim: “Smith as the Martin Luther of political economy.”) Marx praised Smith for having done away with “this external, mindless objectivity of wealth”, and having discovered the “subjective essence of wealth”. Wealth was not something ‘out there’, it was embodied labour, labour objectified. Reality (in this case annual national product) is the creation of man.
It is this idea that is extended to all reality when Marx makes a distinction between “historical nature” and “original nature”, nature shaped by man and nature that man found when he first appeared on the scene. It is man, active man, the producer, who is the dynamic factor in historical development. (This new view is discussed at length in the section ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.)
I have explained how this idea becomes the basis of Marx’s general theory of development. Each generation receives from the preceding generation material production, equipment, knowledge, skills, etc. For this generation this inheritance is given datum, objective, but it was of course the product of men and women of the preceding generation. The present generation uses this inheritance as raw material, shapes it, improves upon it and passes it on to the next. The inheritance circumscribes what the present generation can do, but it has the freedom to act upon it, modify it and develop it (using the inheritance as raw material) and then passes it on to the next generation. It was only the ‘original nature’ that was the given datum, the rest is the product of the creative man. In the course of this process man as the producer changes his conception of life and his consciousness. This, I have argued, is the essence of Marx’s materialism.
With the writing of the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx had all the elements of his worldview. The German Ideology (written with Engels) presented it in a systematic and integrated manner (1846). After the first publisher’s rejection, Marx did not bother to pursue the matter any further. Writing in 1859, Marx said the work had served its main purpose, self-clarification. (The Theses on Feuerbach were also not published in Marx’s lifetime.) Some of the ‘decisive’ points of the new view were first published in Marx’s polemic against the French socialist leader in 1847. The Communist Manifesto (1848) presented the leading ideas of the new conception (in a more finished form), but this was largely an application than a systematic exposition.
I have argued that the materialist conception does not offer a description of reality, it is a conceptual framework for understanding reality, the historical process. By implication there is no room in it for the view (‘evolutionism’) that all societies are moving towards a final destination, a communist society. Such a view would be un-empirical, supra-historical, and therefore contrary to Marx’s thought.
Marx did talk about ‘stages’ of development as different modes of production or social orders. But the only transition between ‘stages’ or modes of production discussed by him was from feudalism to capitalist, or what is the same thing, early capitalist development, a discussion that was based on historical facts; and he did spend an enormous amount of effort (in fact, that was his life’s work) in discussing the transition from capitalism to communism, but that analysis too was based on observed tendencies in the working of capitalism. He may have been wrong in giving greater weight to some observed tendencies than to others, but that of course is another matter.
I have suggested that there are certain important aspects of Marx’s worldview that are ideologically neutral in the sense that they can be accepted and used by those who do not subscribe to his communist vision.
First, there is his philosophical standpoint. In this aspect of his worldview society is conceptualised in organic (as opposed to individualist) terms, and reality is seen in evolutionary (as opposed to static) terms. Both these ideas were derived from Hegel. Then, there is his philosophic materialism which does away with the dualism of man and social reality, in which material conditions are seen as the product of the active man satisfying his needs and in the process creating new needs and new means of satisfying them.
Further, we have the aspect of the vision in which society is conceptualised in terms of economic and social classes, a distinction between propertied classes and others. In particular we have the concept of capitalism in which society is divided between the capitalist class and the working people, two classes whose interests are not always the same and therefore the relationship between them is one of antagonism. This concept of capitalism Marx inherited from Adam Smith, regarded by many as the most prominent prophet of capitalism.
These aspects of Marx’s thought, I have suggested, are ideologically neutral in the sense as defined above.
Marx’s specifically communist thought begins to take shape with his criticism of classical political economy (Adam Smith, Ricardo and others), according to which (as Marx put it) there had been history in the past (transition from feudalism to capitalism), but it was no longer the case. According to Marx, history had not come to an end with capitalism; it will give way to a more progressive mode of production just as feudalism had done. And the dynamic force in the transition (and this is the crucial point) will be class struggle, a phenomenon that was only latent in classical political economy. Marx’s account of the working of capitalism was intended to demonstrate that claim theoretically. (Even in this account there are aspects that are ideologically neutral.)
In Marx’s communist theory there two stages in the development of communist society. The first stage is one characterised by the dictatorship of the proletariat, though other arrangements are possible. This is essentially a transitional stage preparing the ground for a higher stage in which Marx’s vision of the ideal society in which there are no centres of economic and political power and in which individuals obey the laws of society as the laws of their own reason. This is the same vision which started to shape in his critique of Hegel’s political philosophy in the summer of 1843.
 According to Joseph Schumpeter, “at the age of 29, he [Marx] was in possession of all the essentials that make up the Marxist Social science, the only important lacunae being in the field of technical economics.”History of Economic Analysis (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1954, p.388). And the editorial ‘Preface’ to Volume 6 of the Karl Marx-Frederick Engels Collected Works (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1975, p.xxviii): “With The Manifesto  the process of Marxism was…basically complete.”
 German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who was professor of philosophy in Berlin University from 1818 until he died in 1831.
Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872), German materialist philosopher.
Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.
This is the case with the exception of The Holy Family, written immediately after the Manuscripts. In The German Ideology (in the chapter where the materialist conception is presented for the first time, and in a systematic manner) the word ‘alienation’ hardly appears. At one place the word used is “estrangement” – “a term which will be familiar to the philosophers” – and it is used in the context of social division of labour. Section 5: “Development of the productive forces as material premise of communism.”
 In the preface to the Manuscripts he wrote: “…the more certain, profound, extensive, and enduring is the effect of Feuerbach’s writings, the only writings since Hegel’s Phenomenology and Logic to contain a real theoretical revolution.” In The Holy Family he wrote: ‘Just as Cartesian materialism passes into natural science proper, the other trend ofFrench materialism leads directly to socialism and communism.”(Karl Marx-Frederick Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 232, and vol. 4, p.130).
The writer passed away in May 2023