Karl Marx’s Sceneless Socialism: I – The Originary Moment
No. 277: Saturday, January 4th, 2003
Of the nineteenth century’s two great pourfendeurs of metaphysics, whereas Nietzsche opposes to metaphysics a theory of the scene from which its pretended objectivity derives, Marx ignores the scene as a mere derivative of material relations. Nowhere in Marx’s writing, from his satiric rendering of Eugène Suë’s Mystères de Paris in The Holy Family to his depiction of the 1848 French revolution and the 1871 Paris Commune, does Marx attempt to convey a sense of the scene within which events both occur and are represented. Events are transitions from one historical moment to another; they are never lingered on as significant in themselves.
One of Marx’s most famous sentences is the “Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach”: Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kömmt darauf an, sie zu verändern. [Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it]. Marx’s idea of “changing the world” through thought means revealing the truth about the world’s operations in such a way as to accelerate the processes inherent in these operations; in particular, by making his readers aware of the necessary demise of bourgeois society and of class society in general in order to bring about this demise more quickly. No genuine scene of mutual presence, if one is to take place at all, is possible before the accession to the “realm of freedom” through the liberation of humanity’s productive forces; until then, all figures of scenic presence are ideological shams of the ruling class designed to arrest the dialectical march toward freedom.
The first definitive statement of Marx’s anthropology is the section entitled “History: Fundamental Conditions” in part I A of The German Ideology (1845). Marx first defines four “moments” that come together synchronically in the human: 1. “the production of material life itself”; 2. “production of new needs” derived from this basic production; 3. “the relation between man and woman, parents and children, the family”; 4. the combination of “a certain mode of production, or industrial stage . . . with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage.”
[i.] Only now, after having considered four moments, four aspects of the primary historical relationships do we find that man also possesses “consciousness”, but, even so, not inherent, not “pure” consciousness. From the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. Where there exists a relationship, it exists for me: the animal does not enter into “relations” with anything, it does not enter into any relation at all. For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.Language is “practical consciousness” in the sense of material consciousness (“‘burdened’ with matter”) that exists in the world of human interaction. Language alone mediates “relations” between humans, self-conscious relationships that the concerned parties apprehend through the words that define them. There is no generative scene; indeed, Marx does not address the origin of language at all. Although he defines the human by “relations” designated by language rather than simply existing in the world, language does not originate in the spiritual realm of “pure” consciousness, but in the course of the productive process. To quote the preceding section of The German Ideology (I A 4. “The Essence of the Materialist Conception of History: Social Being and Social Consciousness”): “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life.”
The “History” passage continues:
[ii.] Consciousness is at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment and consciousness of the limited connection with other persons and things outside the individual who is growing self-conscious. At the same time it is consciousness of nature, which first appears to men as a completely alien, all-powerful and unassailable force, with which men’s relations are purely animal and by which they are overawed like beasts; it is thus a purely animal consciousness of nature (natural religion [Naturreligion]) just because nature is as yet hardly modified historically. (We see here immediately: this natural religion or this particular relation of men to nature is determined by the form of society and vice versa. Here, as everywhere, the identity of nature and man appears in such a way that the restricted relation of men to nature determines their restricted relation to one another, and their restricted relation to one another determines men’s restricted relation to nature.) On the other hand, man’s consciousness of the necessity of associating with the individuals around him is the beginning of the consciousness that he is living in society at all. This beginning is as animal as social life itself at this stage. It is mere herd-consciousness, and at this point man is only distinguished from sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is a conscious one.Here, in contrast with the previous passage, the human being is “growing self-conscious” and as a consequence humans confront nature as “a completely alien . . . force . . . by which they are overawed like beasts.” This derivation of “natural religion” from the conflation of the inherently cultural relation of awe with the pre-cultural, “animal” reaction to nature is typical of nineteenth-century explanations of the origin of religion; we have already seen its classic exposition in the work of Marx’s contemporary Max Müller (see Chronicle 192). We need not dwell on the absurdity of this derivation, whose association of religious awe with the animal’s presumably inferior abilities to cope with natural forces makes animality itself the source of religious feeling (“overawed like beasts”). What makes this passage important is that Marx’s attempt to describe the genesis of his previously-defined anthropological model obligatorily leads him, in however perfunctory a manner, to account for the sacred. In the parenthesis immediately following the Müller-like derivation, Marx reassociates this worship of nature with human social relations. “We see here immediately: this natural religion or this particular relation of men to nature is determined by the form of society and vice versa.” But what we see “immediately” is rather the contradiction between the parallel drawn here between religion and social form and the earlier derivation of religion from man’s “purely animal” relation to nature. If indeed religion is not simply determined by “the form of society” as we might expect the superstructure to be determined by the infrastructure, but “vice versa” as well, then there is a reciprocal homology between religious ideology and the social order that cannot be explained by our “animal” awe before nature.
The only coherent explanation of “natural religion” is that our sense of a “completely alien, all-powerful and unassailable force” proceeds not from our experience of nature but from the mimetic violence from which religion preserves the human social order. For the homology to be a functional relationship, this force must become the basis of an order that it constitutes by remaining outside it in the transcendental relation of the sacred that is nowhere to be found in nature. Marx’s materialist disdain for the scene of representation reduces its originary manifestation to an animal act–that is, one that cannot by definition characterize the human. As soon as we are forced to cease our diachronically-oriented productive activities in order to attend to the scene of our experience, we act as beasts. In terms of the historical dialectic, the fearful apprehension of nature as an alien force is the first stage of the process by which we harness this force to our productive enterprise, but the natural religion that results from the appearance of this force on the scene of representation exceeds this dialectic in both directions at once, as at one and the same time a prehuman reaction and an ideological figuration of the productive relations by which the dialectic is presumably constituted.
It might appear curious that nature provides Marx with the original resistance against which his human dialectic can operate; the theoretician of the class struggle passes up the opportunity to derive human self-consciousness from the scene of human conflict on the example of Hegel’s lord-bondsman dialectic. In this, Marx betrays the Rousseauian roots of socialist thought: a humanity born in Hobbesian internal conflict would lack an originary guarantee of the eschatological communist paradise in which class conflict is abolished; in other terms, it would be beholden to a scene.
[iii.] This sheep-like or tribal consciousness receives its further development and extension through increased productivity, the increase of needs, and, what is fundamental to both of these, the increase of population. With these there develops the division of labor, which was originally nothing but the division of labor in the sexual act, then that division of labor which develops spontaneously or “naturally” by virtue of natural predisposition (e.g.,physical strength), needs, accidents, etc. etc. Division of labor only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labor appears. [Marx’s marginal note:] (The first form of ideologists, priests, is concurrent.) From this moment onward consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of “pure” theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc.Once again, Marx hints at the originary significance of the transcendental dichotomy between signs and things: the moment of the division of labor that gives rise to a self-reflective human consciousness that “can really flatter itself [sich einbilden]” is that between “material” and “mental” labor, the latter, as if in anticipation of Durkheim, being attributed to the sacred functions of priestly “ideology.” Thus the material progress that can be attributed to human labor produces human consciousness only through the mediation of this sacred ideology that exists detached from “existing practice” on the scene of its own “pure” representations.
This is as far as Marx ever goes in the thematization of the scene of representation. Yet it is far enough to reveal that Marx’s materialist anthropology cannot coherently explain the scene’s dependency on the sacred, which, although described as originating in our animal fear of nature, gives rise not only to a homologous representation of the system of social relations but to human self-consciousness itself as distinct from the unreflective consciousness of the here-and-now.
[iv.] But even if this theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. comes into contradiction with the existing relations, this can only occur because existing social relations have come into contradiction with existing forces of production; this, moreover, can also occur in a particular national sphere of relations through the appearance of the contradiction, not within the national orbit, but between this national consciousness and the practice of other nations, i.e., between the national and the general consciousness of a nation (as we see it now in Germany).
Moreover, it is quite immaterial what consciousness starts to do on its own: out of all such muck [Dreck] we get only the one inference that 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 labor implies the possibility, nay the fact that intellectual and material activity–enjoyment and labor, production and consumption–devolve on different individuals, and that the only possibility of their not coming into contradiction lies in the negation in its turn of the division of labor. It is self-evident, moreover, that “specters,” “bonds,” “the higher being,” “concept,” “scruple,” are merely the idealistic, spiritual expression, the conception apparently of the isolated individual, the image of very empirical fetters and limitations, within which the mode of production of life and the form of intercourse coupled with it move.
In conclusion, Marx reminds us that the above-mentioned “emancipation” of consciousness is in fact an illusion; consciousness reflects “social relations” and its liberation from “existing practice” is merely a reflection of the “contradiction” between these relations and the “forces of production.” Moreover, such a contradiction must occur, presumably because (the text is allusive on this point) the emancipated consciousness is that of a privileged class defined by “intellectual activity” and “consumption” of the material goods produced by those engaged in the “material activity” of “production.”
Here is the germ of post-metaphysical thought that changes the world not by reflecting the ideology of the privileged consumers but by elaborating that implicit in the productive activity of the proletariat, which not merely opposes them to the bourgeois possessors of the means of production but has the potential to render the bourgeoisie, and all “division of labor” in the sense of class difference, superfluous. Consciousness “on its own” produces only “muck”; its “idealistic, spiritual” contents are merely fanciful representations of the “very empirical fetters and limitations” of the production process, as seen through the distorting lens of class (“social relations”). The justification for the socialist ideology that Marx would subsequently elaborate is that the “fetters” of the current mode of production had become so clearly the effect of current “social relations” that the proletarian ideologist could envisage a world in which, at last, social relations would reflect production relations without conflict–the classless society in which the division of labor would be “negated.” (I will deal with Marx’s concept of the communist revolution in a later Chronicle.)
In class society, contradiction is inevitable because of the ideological mystification brought about by the division of labor. Yet the origin of this mystification, Marx tells us, is the sacred ideology first promulgated by priests, which itself derives from animal fear before the forces of nature. Which is to say that, however much these priests take advantage of their flock’s credulousness to impose on them an ideology that justifies their own and their allies’ class privileges, this credulousness itself, this willingness to grant authority to those who speak in the name of the sacred, has its origins prior to the division of labor in an “ideological” imperative that is nonetheless independent of humanity’s ideological divisions. The originary role of the sacred in the constitution of the human is one that no confounder of priestly ideology, be he Karl Marx or Friedrich Nietzsche, could account for.