Whatever else Karl Marx was, he was not a Marxist- as he himself is reported to have said. This comment is generally taken as a dig at the intellectual quality of ‘Marxists’ and one all the more piquant because it comes from the progenitor of Marxism.. But it is possible to see this from another point of view; as a typically wry observation that Marx himself understood that he could not be a Marxist according to the logic of his own position, because he was unwilling and unable to apply a strict Marxist interpretation to Marxism itself. If Marx was accusing anyone, he was accusing himself…. His favourite motto:
De omnibus dubitandum [Everything must be doubted].”
would of necessity include Marx himself of course…
Marxism as an ideology necessarily comes into existence in it’s own terms. Marxism proclaims that it derives purpose and validity solely by virtue of it’s own content. For a Marxist, there are no questions to be asked about Marxism’s origins or the context in which it came to existence outside of the terms of Marxism itself. At first glance his seems a bit knotty, but in fact the logic is quite straightforward. Let me elaborate: Marxism is given as the product of Marx’s intellectual development which in turn is the product of the development of the objective conditions that gave rise to it; (That would be Marx’s intellectual development and also Marxism, which are two different things, but also the same thing,,,ahem..) Let me elaborate further…
The basic idea underpinning historical materialism is that capitalism inevitably comes into existence because of mankind’s increasing productive capacity through technological advance. By the same process socialism/communism also inevitably must come into existence because of the inherent nature of capitalism. In so far as mankind’s development is inevitable, so the development of capitalism from feudalism and then socialism from capitalism is inevitable. And since socialism is the first truly self aware social movement, it’s ideology must also inevitably come into existence at the same time that socialism itself comes into existence.(Because if it didn’t then it wouldn’t be self aware..and therefore not Marxism/socialism). You can be a functioning capitalist without necessarily understanding capitalism but you can’t be a functioning socialist without understanding socialism. On the contrary, Marxists argue that it is a precondition of being a capitalist that you do not really understand the true nature of capitalism since if you did then you would be…. a socialist!
“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is 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 this movement result from the premises now in existence.”
This fundamental conditionality is encapsulated in the idea of ‘false consciousness’ which, like many such concepts, is used in inverse proportion to the extent it is understood. The vulgar exposition of false consciousness is that workers believe they have a stake in the ongoing success of capitalism when in fact their best interest would be served by its collapse. But actually the doctrine of false consciousness holds that thought is ‘falsely conscious’ when it holds itself to be the product of abstracted reason instead of objective conditions. In other words a thought is conscious in that it wants to be the product of reason (which is what consciousness consists of, according to Marx), but it is false in that it is not actually the product of reason but an expression of the social relationships that gave rise to that thought. In more prosaic, (but no less convoluted), terms; You think that you think what you think because you have reasoned it out and therefore there is no reasoned alternative to what you are thinking. But in reality you think what you think because you have been conditioned to think it. Simply because you are unaware that you have been conditioned to think as you do, your conditioned thought is non rational. If you did understand that you have been conditioned to think as you do, then this would necessarily be the first step toward breaking that conditioning and becoming truly aware, (a socialist).
“Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious. Freedom is the consciousness of necessity.”
In general the first step towards becoming a socialist/Marxist is to understand that there is an historical identity to capitalism because that specific understanding breaks the conditioning of capitalism.
“Once the inner connection is grasped, all theoretical belief in the permanent necessity of existing conditions collapses before their collapse in practice
Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann (July 11, 1868)”
Selected Letters: The Personal Correspondence 1844-1877
From this whole cloth the historical materialism I refer to above is created. Historical materialism holds that the emergence, development and demise of capitalism is part of an ongoing historical process. On the contrary, modern capitalist ideology holds that capitalism itself is the end point of that process. (The ‘End Of History’ a la Francis Fukyama).
A brief word to clarify what is meant by conditioning here. This is not necessarily a directed process in the Pavlovian sense of training a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell, but rather a natural outcome of interaction with the world as it presently is. To a Marxist, thought is the contemporaneous state of the world mediated through the minds of the people that inhabit it.
“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”
Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy
As a consequences of this perspective, Marxism understands thought as a PRODUCT not a cause in distinction from capitalists who regard thought as a means to an end instead of an end product in itself. Thought is unconscious ( falsely conscious), to the extent of being a product and not a cause. Thought is actually conscious to the extent of being a cause and not a product. ( hence the famous Marx quote:
Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
Eleven Theses on Feuerbach
These prophetic words are inscribed upon Marx’s grave. Irony.
Marx argued this in direct contradistinction to Hegelian philosophy although he claimed Hegel in part as inspiration. In fact, Marx characterised his materialism in exactly this way as the contradictory argument that refines Hegelian philosophy. Hegel starts from the process of thought and goes on to explain the thought process but Marx ends at thought. In this way Marx directly contradicts Hegel and yet claims though this contradiction to be his successor! This startling conception of the thought process gives rise to a problem however. If a given thought process is the product of the conditioning that created it, surely it is trapped by that very same conditioning. How can such a thought process ever realise that it is the product of conditioning? How can you modify your own thought process just by thinking about it? How can you lift yourself up by your own shoe laces? It is clear that for the argument to work some outside force becomes necessary to break into the conditioning/thinking feedback loop and produce a change.
Luckily as it turns out, capitalism just happens to contain within itself that agent of change!