Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, from The German Ideology
(1846), pp. 70-8
The writing of Marx and Engels, at least in the translation presented in the anthology, is far from the clearest I’ve read. In fact, I often found myself wondering whether the lack of clarity I found at a given point in the excerpt was due to the imprecision of the translation or the muddiness of thought on part of the authors. In an attempt to be gracious to the creators of one of the most significant ideologies of the past two centuries, I will (perhaps a bit disingenuously) fault the translator and try to “read through” the sheen of his or her translation to comprehend the ideas as I might imagine they were intended by the original authors. In any case, I by no means profess to understand all that was said in the excerpt, but hopefully the following explanations and explorations will demonstrate that I at least possess a sufficient understanding of the general principles it posits.
One of the terms I had the most trouble understanding was “intercourse,” which, as nearly as I can tell, simply means interactions between people. Although I may be a bit off in that understanding, it will have to suffice. This term is crucial in that it appears in the excerpt from its very first sentence, which asserts that communism is different from all previous movements in that it treats current human circumstances not as the natural, inevitable products of the way things are but instead as specific results of human actions up to this point, which, as such, are subject to the scrutiny and reconsideration of the same group that determined them, that is, a collective, united group of individuals. This point, this systematic questioning of inherited systems, thoughts, and social assumptions, is perhaps Marxism’s greatest contribution to all theory and thought.
From this observation, the authors then move on to state that “it [is] impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals,” that is, that there is no outside ultimate authority that has determined the way things must be [NB I can see here a possible proof text for those who see communism as “godless”] .
Next, Marx and Engels discuss the “difference between the individual as a person [the essential qualities of a man?] and what is accidental to him [how the material circumstances and, hence, the sociopolitical forces of the age define him]” as arising from and defined by old ideologies carried over from “the earlier age.” Thus, they see the process of human history as one of an as-yet-unbroken chain of one generation figuring out how to meet its material wants and desires [which the authors see as the guiding force behind human history], defining themselves through the ways and the degree of success with which they have met those needs, and then passing those self-definitions down to the next generation as natural, innate definitions of self. Then, each new generation necessarily modifies that self-definition (“what is accidental to him,” that is, his socioeconomic standing) as they adapt to the economic realities of their own age, and then repeat the process endlessly.
The authors characterize the social change generated by this process as slow, unquestioned, and as generative of “illusory” power systems that are both unfair and unrepresentative of the actual material state of affairs. Because this form of societal progress is viewed as natural, Marx and Engels state, the “illusory communit[ies]” of those in and out of power “in the last resort can only be broken by a revolution,” a logical enough conclusion given the chain of reasoning thus far.
As a negative example of this phenomenon, Marx and Engels cite the nearly uninhibited spread of the ideologies of the founders of America (which the authors oddly refer to as the “country” of North America) in a land not “encumbered with interests and relationships left over from earlier periods.” However, in a knock on the American ideology, and on imperialist ideologies in general, the authors are quick to note that imperialist powers often use this ideological blank slate “only to assure the conquerors’ lasting power” instead of to effect the truly equitable society of communism.
In one of the brief moments of clarity in the excerpt, the authors reveal that they believe that “all collisions in history have their origin… in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse,” which, again, as nearly as I can tell, means between the actual material realities and needs of a generation and its inherited socioeconomic power structures. From this point in the essay, matters generally become clearer. The line of reasoning then flows as follows:
– Examples in history show that when this contradiction has grown too great, revolution has occurred; however, previous revolutions have only focused on one of the symptoms of the contradiction rather than the contradiction itself as the source of the revolution.
– Therefore, to resolve the contradiction, individuals must, as a community, rally together to launch a revolution that “subject[s] these material powers to themselves and abolish[es] the [unfair] division of labor.” This revolution will have several benefits, in that it will
a) liberate the masses from false, inherited, ideologies,
b) get rid of the “illusory” community, which, as a “combination of one class over against another” both pits equal individuals against each other in a false class system and dehumanizes all people, regardless of class, as mere members of their class instead of as complete individuals, and in its place
c)establish the legitimate “community with others [within which each individual has] the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions.”
From here, the excerpts concludes by further exploring communism’s proposed liberation of the individual from his supposedly intrinsic definition as a mere member of his class. Marx and Engels believe that the conditions for this to occur are not possible within the existing power structure, i. e. the State, for the current system of power only allows for movement from one class to another through the accumulation or loss of capital through labor. Hence, they believe, “the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto… namely labor [which is the power structure of the State]. In order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the State.” And there you have the revolutionary ideology of Marxism.
Although I’m tempted to go into an evaluation of the pros and cons of Marxism as an actual, functional ideology, I’ve already rambled on for far too long, so, for now, I’ll conclude.