Political Philosophy Part 2.

Karl Marx 1818 – 1883

Extracts from McLellan, D: Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford, 1977.

Numbers refer to the ten points in the notes at: Marx: overview


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1. THE DIALECTIC – a method for understanding and explaining society and history.

I start with this because it is fundamental to Marx’s way of thinking, and most of  the extracts below illustrate Marx’s use of the dialectic e.g. in 3, where ‘real happiness’ is opposed to the ‘illusory happiness’ that religion claims to provide, and philosophy identifies the ‘inversion’ of reality in order to transcend it; in 5, where ‘social being’ is opposed to ‘consciousness’, and ‘productive forces’ to ‘relations of production’. Even more clearly, in 6, Marx describes ‘particular, general and universal’ aspects of class.

See my notes on Hegel at: Conservatism: Burke and Hegel


However, Marx’s dialectic is MATERIALIST, and not (as in Hegel) idealist:

1.1 The German Ideology (first published 1932) contains a brief summary of Marx’s differences with the ‘idealists’ such as Hegel (and the ‘empiricists’), in McLellan op cit p 164 ff:


“This method of approach [i.e. the materialist conception of history, see 5 below] ... starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists.


Where speculation ends – in real life – there real, positive science begins: the representation of the practical activity, of the practical process of development of men.  


Empty talk about consciousness ceases, and real knowledge has to take its place. When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence.”

See point 10 in the notes: this is what Marx meant by praxis – the union of theory and practice: philosophy must change the world not just seek to understand it (Theses on Feuerbach).


1.2 Marx’s disagreement with Feuerbach over materialism, from Theses on Feuerbach (1845)

– number I: “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, not subjectively.”


- number II, relating to Hegel and others: ... “The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”


2. ALENATION and REIFICATION – a humanistic view: alienation is not endemic to human nature but arises from social arrangements, and especially the division of labour, which affects property-relations:

2.1 The German Ideology, in McLellan op cit p 160 ff:

“Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion, or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization.


As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.


How far the productive forces of a nation are developed is shown most manifestly by the degree to which the division of labour has been carried. Each new productive force... causes a further development of the division of labour.


Marx then illustrates how the division of labour produces conflicts of interest, starting with town vs. country, for:


“The various stages of development in the division of labour are just so many different forms of ownership, i.e. the existing stage in the division of labour determines also the relations of individuals to one another with reference to the material, instrument, and product of labour.


He then describes tribal, ‘ancient communal and State ownership’, and feudal systems of property, in which peasants stand as a class opposed to landlords, in order to make the case that these forms are at the basis of the social structure – and ‘morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology...’ is conditioned by this system of property. See 1 above... He discusses the evolution of consciousness and language, arising out of the need for humans to co-operate with each other; this consciousness is at first “mere herd-consciousness... sheep-like or tribal” until it “receives its further development and extension through increased productivity” leading to an “increase in needs... and... the increase of population.” He goes on:


“With these [i.e. increased productivity and population] there develops the division of labour... [which] only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears”.


“... these three moments, the forces of production, the state of society, and consciousness, can and must come into contradiction with one another, because the division of labour implies the possibility, nay the fact, that intellectual and material activity – enjoyment and labour, production and consumption – devolve on different individuals.”


“... the only possibility of their not coming into contradiction lies in the negation ... of the division of labour.”  (See 7 below on Communism).

... the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest... And finally... as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means of livelihood.” [Go to 7 below for the continuation of this quote – life in a communist society...]


“This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations... is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”


2.2 In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (written 1844, published 1932) he writes:


“The externalisation of the worker in his product implies not only that his labour becomes an object, an exterior existence, but also that it exists outside him, independent and alien, and becomes a self-sufficient power opposite to him, that the life that he has lent to the object confronts him, hostile and alien...


... labour is exterior to the worker, that is , it does not belong to his essence . Therefore he does not confirm himself in his work, he denies himself... [labour] is not his own but someone else’s he does not belong to himself in his labour but to someone else...”


“What we have to understand now is the essential connection of all this private property, selfishness, the separation of labour, capital and landed property, of exchange and competition, of the value and degradation of man, of monopoly and competition etc – the connection of all this with alienation and the money system.


3. CRITIQUE OF RELIGION – the heart of a heartless world... man makes God, the idea which forms the basis of Marx’s materialism: all ideas are the product of social conditions.

From ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction.’ (1844), in McLellan 1977 p 63 ff:


“...man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-awareness of man who has either not yet attained to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produces man’s inverted attitude to the world, because they are an inverted world themselves... Religion is... the imaginary realization of the human essence because the human essence possesses no true reality.


Thus, the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against the world whose spiritual aroma is religion.


Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people.


The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion.


The first task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, once the holy form of self-alienation has been discovered, is to discover self-alienation in its unholy forms. The criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”


There follows an appraisal of the state of German philosophy (Hegel and the young Helegians), which is advanced as philosophy, but unable to provide a practical political orientation: whilst the ‘practical political party in Germany’ rejects philosophy. Philosophy needs, rather, to be taken further, but:


“you cannot transcend philosophy without realizing it.”


On the other hand, the ‘theoretical party that originates in philosophy’ is too tied up in ‘philosophy as philosophy’ and:


“it thought you could realize philosophy without transcending it.” (op cit p 68) This point is taken up again later in the same article, but now the proletariat has become the vehicle for this transcendence – see 6. below.


“The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that man is the highest being for man, that is, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned, and despised...”


4. ECONOMY AND SOCIETY, and a CRITIQUE OF “BOURGEOIS” POLITICAL ECONOMY (contemporary economists) & CAPITALISM - labour theory of value, private property and the market:

4.1 from the Communist Manifesto (1848):


“Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat...


The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part... wherever it has got the upper hand, [it] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’,


and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’... It has resolved personal worth into exchange value... In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.


The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society... everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch... All fixed, fast-frozen relations... are swept away... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned... [The bourgeoisie] compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production...


... the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and... all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage to the machine... The growing competition... among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious... [a] more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society [will break out] into open revolution, where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”


4.2 For accounts of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, etc see especially:


Giddens, Anthony: Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge 1971, pp ch 4, esp pp 52 – 58.

Berki, R.N.: Socialism, dent 1971, especially pp 64 ff.

Goodwin, B: Using Political Ideas, Wiley 4th edition 1997, pp 70 ff.


5. CONTRADICTIONS in society etc – the MATERIALIST CONCEPTION OF HISTORY - economics at the “base” of social order (ideas are part of the superstructure), concept of the mode of production, forces and relations of production. Again, for the working out of these ideas in Marx’s economics see the references just given.

From Preface to A Critique of Political Economy (a writing-up of the first part of the Grundrisse, which was written 1857 – 8), in McLellan op cit p 388 ff:


Having worked on a critical review of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (see the quotes in 1. above, and 6. below), Marx concluded that the law, politics etc cannot be understood abstractly or theoretically, but “have their roots in the material conditions of life” – which Hegel called ‘civil society’. Marx then realised that “the anatomy of civil society is to be found in political economy” – this breakthrough led him to “a guiding thread” for his studies, which


“can be briefly formulated as follows: In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material forces.


The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of

society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression of the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundations the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.


The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production... at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism, This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close.”


6. CLASS-STRUCTURE OF SOCIETY, CLASS-STRUGGLE AS THE DRIVING FORCE IN HISTORY, PROLETARIAT AS THE AGENT OF REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE: 6.1 From Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction. (1844), in McLellan op cit p 71 - 3:


“What is the basis of a partial, purely political revolution? It is that a part of civil society emancipates itself and attains to universal domination, that a particular class undertakes the general emancipation of society from its particular situation. This class frees the whole of society, but only under the presupposition that the whole of society is in the same situation as this class...


A particular class can only vindicate for itself general supremacy in the name of the general rights of society.” For such a partial, political revolution to occur, society must be divided into two opposing classes:


“so that one class can stand for the whole of society, the deficiency of all society must inversely be concentrated in another class... So that one class... may appear as the class of liberation, another class must inversely be the manifest class of oppression...


So where is the real possibility of German emancipation?

We answer: in the formation of a class with radical chains, a class in civil society that is not a class of civil society, of a social group that is the dissolution of all social groups, of a sphere that has a universal character because of its universal sufferings, and lays claim to no particular right, because it is the object of no particular injustice but of injustice in general. This class can no longer lay claim to a historical status, but only to a human one... It is, finally, a sphere that cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating these other spheres themselves.


In a word, it is the complete loss of humanity and thus can only recover itself by a complete redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat... 


As philosophy finds in the proletariat its material weapons, so the proletariat finds in philosophy its intellectual weapons...


Philosophy cannot realize itself without transcending the proletariat, the proletariat cannot transcend itself without realizing philosophy.”


6.2 From the Communist Manifesto, in McLellan p 230 - 1:

“The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers, Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.


6.3 From Wage Labour and Capital 1849, in McLellan p 267:

“Let us sum up: The more productive capital grows, the more the division of labour and the application of machinery expands. The more the division of labour and the application of machinery expands, the more competition among the workers expands and the more their wages contract...

Thus the forest of uplifted arms demanding work becomes ever thicker, while the arms themselves become ever thinner.”


7. COMMUNISM as the abolition of capitalist private property, and of alienation – through abolition of the division of labour...

7.1 From The German Ideology, in McLellan op cit p 171:


[Continued from the quote in 2 above] “in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, cowherd, or critic. ...


This alienation... can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an ‘intolerable’ power, i.e. a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless’, and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development.                                                          (continued...)

And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces is an absolutely necessary practical premiss” [because what will happen must be a world revolution, when these conditions, and the proletariat itself are at a ‘world-historical’ stage of development].


“Communism is not a state of affairs which to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of the movement result from the premises now in existence. (p 171)


And if these material elements of a complete revolution are not present (namely, on the one hand the existing productive forces, on the other the formation of a revolutionary mass, which revolts not only against separate conditions of society up till then, but against the very ‘production of life’ till then, the ‘total activity’ on which it was based), then, as far as practical development is concerned, it is absolutely immaterial whether the idea of revolution has been expressed a hundred times already...” (p 173)


... the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity [not just against the distribution of the existing mode of activity], does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes...” (p 179)


7.2 From the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (written 1844, published 1932):

“... communism [is] the positive abolition of private property and thus of human self-alienation and therefore the real re-appropriation of the human essence by and for man...”



From the Communist Manifesto, in McLellan p 223:

“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”


9. IDEOLOGY – an inversion of reality, serving the interests of power-holders

From The German Ideology, in McLellan op cit p 159 ff:


“Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.” (p 164)


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... In so far as [the individuals composing the ruling class] rule as a class... [they] among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age...” (pp 176)