On My (Mis)Understanding Marx, Pt. 1

Marx’s “German Ideology” criticizes the 19th century’s theoretical treatment of “man” as one that “descends from heaven.” Instead, the correct path of interrogation is of his and Engel’s treatment of man: one that “ascends from earth.” Indeed, everywhere in the young and old Marx is the concept of man that the locally engendered, the “really existing,” the definite, not the ideal, human being. “Circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances” (p. 165). Man is a willing agent. Man thinks. Man knows. Marx pursues this interrogation of circumstance and the willing epistemic agent against the grain of German philosophies that treat man as mere abstraction, illusion. Yet he finds everywhere illusion.

For instance, he sees that the contradiction of individual and community “interests”, where the latter is “alien” and “external” to the individual, actually sublates itself into the the reality and composition of the state. He then asserts that the state is the illusion of natural, communal life. In other words, the state merely recapitulates really existing power relations; is a terrain in which dominating interests win out. The diversity of actually existing life is lost in the isomorphism that the state enacts. “The struggle between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., etc., are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another” (p. 161). Everywhere representation is critically dangerous. It jeopardizes the real existence of human beings. Representation is itself illusion.

Yet somehow, he treats circumstance, of world-historical processes driven by underlying productive forces (that is to say, universals) as the conditioning agents of man. And all the while he consistently re-asserts the first principle of analysis as “man” and the really existing conditions in which they find themselves as the only reality. This double movement, whereby he treats on the one hand man as first principle (as the really existing and non-abstract) and on the other the conditions that create and craft man, seems to me intellectually dishonest if not itself a contradiction. It must be purely Hegelian in its logical form in order to make any sense.

Proposition A: Man creates around him the material conditions for their subsistence (in aggregation the productive forces) and thus reflects into those productive forces reality.

Proposition B: Man reflects back into themselves these productive forces that, historically, they have created and are hence conditioned by something that exceeds them.

Conclusion: Man simultaneously constructs and is constructed. This contradiction engenders the illusions of stability in state, religions, groups, and economy.

In order to be true, man must play host of a series of illusions that productive forces interpellate within them. Man must consistently labor under false premises and thus adopt a chain of oppressions that stretches through a riddled history. It is only through criticism and revolution that man can overcome this chain. Only through a “world-historical” consciousness, one that “plucks the living flower,” can man discover real freedom (p. 54). Yet, this broader consciousness betrays the really existing man. If man constructs as much as is constructed, then who among man is constructing? If the shopkeeper can really tell the difference between “what somebody professes to be and what he really is,” doesn’t it stand to reason that this shopkeeper’s vision of profession versus reality is one that is bridled by the intersecting illusions of economy, race, sex, gender, morality, politics, sexuality, and power? If one makes the argument that Marx isn’t betraying the knowing and thinking subject in their locally situated knowledge, then one is missing a point Marx makes in the “Ideology.” Communism, that great revolutionary goal is at the same time not a goal: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself” (p. 162)). The communist revolution, the consciousness of man as man, must universal lest it remain ensnared in the local “superstitions” that are “home-bred” (Ibid.). Marx must rely on the abstract-universal to make the concrete human accessible, to bring philosophy down from the clouds and into the hands of (what he hopes to be) revolutionary man. In order to overcome the material conditions of abjection, of poverty, of propertyless-ness, man must see within themselves their own Being. They must begin to think. Yet, Marx brokers in illusions, not reality. Marxist Being is only ever caught up in a humanism that only ever universalizes experience.


Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” (1978). In The Marx and Engel’s Reader, Robert Tucker (ed.). New York: Norton.







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