Andy Blunden April 2009

Marx and Activity Theory

Marx’s critique of Hegel.

‘Ask anybody in Berlin today’, announced the Telegraph für Deutschland of December 1841, ‘on what field the battle for dominion over German public opinion ... over Germany itself, is being fought, and if he has any idea of the power of the mind over the world he will reply that this battlefield is the University, in particular Lecture Hall No. 6, where Schelling is giving his lectures on the Philosophy of Revelation’ (Engels 1975). The new Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV had appointed a Minister of Culture with instructions to ‘expunge the dragon’s seed of Hegelian pantheism from Prussian youth’, and Hegel’s roommate and friend from his student days, Friedrich Schelling, had been summoned to Berlin to do the job (Beiser 1993).

The young Frederick Engels continued: ‘An imposing, colorful audience has assembled to witness the battle. At the front the notables of the University, the leading lights of science, men everyone of whom has created a trend of his own; for them the seats nearest to the rostrum have been reserved, and behind them, jumbled together as chance brought them to the hall, representatives of all walks of life, nations, and religious beliefs. In the midst of high-spirited youths there sits here and there a grey-breaded staff officer ...’, and Engels himself, one of the founders of modern communism, Mikhail Bakunin, founder of militant anarchism, and Søren Kierkegaard (2001), precursor of Existentialism ... ‘then the signal for silence sounds and Schelling mounts the rostrum. A man of middle stature, with white hair and light-blue, bright eyes, whose expression is gay rather than imposing and, combined with a certain fullness of figure, indicates more the jovial family-man than the thinker of genius, a harsh but strong voice, Swabian-Bavarian accent, that is Schelling’s outward appearance’. Engels responded to Schelling’s anti-Hegelian declaration: ‘We are not afraid to fight. ... we shall rise confidently against the new enemy; in the end, one will be found among us who will prove that the sword of enthusiasm is just as good as the sword of genius’. And it would not be long before Engels would find one who could match enthusiasm with genius.

Since Hegel’s death, Hegelianism had broken through the walls of the academy and, unrestrained by their teacher, Hegel’s young followers had been drawing revolutionary conclusions. The world had completely changed since the death of Hegel in 1831 (and the death of Goethe only three months later).

In 1830 France was hit by a recession, causing widespread unemployment and hunger; an invasion of Algeria organized to divert attention failed and on May 29 masses of angry workers came into the streets, and to their own surprise, took control of Paris. Their spokesmen were liberal-democrats, and a deal was done. But when the king dissolved parliament on July 26, the proletariat of Paris set up barricades again, the soldiers refused move against them, and the King was forced to abdicate. The July 1830 Revolution not only brought about a constitutional monarchy in France, a regime which would be in constant crisis until 1848, but the repercussions of the Revolution spread across Europe, with a democratic movement growing rapidly in Germany. In England the Chartist movement grew rapidly during this decade. The Birmingham Political Union was formed by Thomas Attwood in 1830, to press for parliamentary reform, Wm Benbow was advocating armed struggle to secure a workers’ holiday and in October 1831 mobs burnt and looted in Bristol, demanding parliamentary reform. The 1832 Reform Bill far from assuaging democratic demands, only spurred on the Chartist movement.

During the previous decades, there had been many barricades erected in Paris and many battles between police and workers in Britain, but during the 1830s, these movements of the oppressed were increasingly choosing their own leaders, pursuing political demands of their own and were actually driving the reform agenda. This was completely new.

Political struggle over the previous centuries could be broadly characterized as the progress of bourgeois liberal reform against the resistance of the privileged classes. To Enlightenment thinkers like Hegel, outbursts of anger by the rabble fell into the same category as degradation of the environment. Apparently arising directly out of material conditions, such events could not be understood as an expression of an idea, as political movements. Ideas and progress grew out of the culture and institutions created by the enlightened elite, not at the hands of the uncultured rabble who were, on the contrary, excluded from the political process and culture in general.

Under these new conditions, Hegelianism was untenable without the radical transformation which in turn made it anathema to the prevailing order. The necessary transformation of the Hegelian philosophy into an emancipatory idea began in 1841, coincidently with the move by the Prussian Monarchy to suppress it, the year also marked by the publication of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity (1881).

The rabble placing a claim for political leadership of society made the kind of totalizing idealism of Hegel’s system unusable as an emancipatory doctrine, even while utopian visions would continue to inspire the masses. Hegel would not of course be the last to produce such systems, but this kind of totalizing systematization is always associated with a retreat from the rough and tumble of political life. The followers of Comte’s system of positivism for example, never went beyond proselytizing and the great Auguste Blanqui who was to be found on any barricade in France when not in prison, only turned to a cosmological system in his dotage.

Hegel’s commitment to his system routinely led him into serious errors in his history of philosophy. Increasingly, the significance of people and events were distorted in order to fit them into a pre-existing schema. Once a philosophical system begins to act as a barrier to critique, rather than drawing its nourishment from critique, it is dead for the purposes of emancipation. The move from spirit as the product of human activity to Spirit as pre-existing and manifested in human activity, was decisive in this respect. It is for this reason that emancipatory readings of Hegel invariably return to his early works for an interpretation of Spirit. As Marx put it: “History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” (Marx 1975a)

This was and remains a problem with Hegel’s system, and in the process of its appropriation, the architecture of his system was generally discarded by all those who sought to use it for emancipatory purposes. These points are relatively straight forward, and not a lot of heat need be generated in criticizing Hegel for totalizing and systematizing. Exactly what was appropriated from Hegel’s philosophy, his method as it is said (Engels 1990), is the subject of the next two chapters, but first we must look at some serious issues of principle which blinded Hegel to certain social issues.

Firstly, Hegel held that in Nature ‘there is nothing new under the Sun’ (Hegel 1956). Neither the modern day physicist nor Hegel suggest that nothing changes in Nature, but even the physicists who theorise about the Big Bang assume that they can determine the laws of physics applicable at that time on the basis of a logical deduction from what they perceive now. Hegel knew that the continents were the products of a process of geological development, but he thought that human beings appeared on new continents, complete with a characteristic physiology, as if springing from the ground (Houlgate 2005: 173).

So Hegel shared an idea which is still very common today, that the development of the human life can be sharply divided into two stages, firstly the natural process which produced the human physiology (which Hegel took to be more or less as per the Old Testament), and secondly the cultural process, which begins only after the human form has been completely formed. Hegel did not see any overlap or interpenetration between nature and culture in the production of the human form and uncritically accepted the nature / culture dichotomy. Consequently he took the relations between the sexes and between the peoples of different cultures to be more or less given by Nature, rather than being a product of culture. So even though cultural critics today rely on Hegel’s critical method, Hegel himself underestimated the extent to which human beings are themselves products of labor. The point is that what is made by culture can be unmade by culture.

It was Feuerbach who first raised the criticism against Hegel, that he failed to appreciate that human beings were natural, sensuous, suffering beings, not just thinkers. Feuerbach made “man, together with nature the basis of man, the exclusive, universal, and highest object of philosophy - anthropology, together with physiology, the universal science.” (Feuerbach 1990) But in making human beings products of their physiology rather than their culture, Feuerbach duplicated Hegel’s error of an absolute separation of nature and culture, though from the other side.

In his critique of Hegel in the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx makes much of the fact that Hegel gives no recognition at all for human beings as natural beings, with needs that have their source in Nature, i.e., outside of all human labor processes. And as if that were not enough, Hegel places the figure who is furthest removed from Nature, the philosopher, at the pinnacle of the whole process. The strength of Hegel’s philosophy is that he makes human life absolutely a product of Mind, but there is a real price to pay for this. After Darwin published Origins of Species, Marx and Engels were able to claim that homo sapiens was itself the product of labor.

It is not possible to resolve the nature vs nurture argument by declarations of principle (Blunden 2007). It can only be resolved by empirical investigation, but it can be said definitively now that the human form as we find it today is the product of overlapping and interpenetrating processes of biological evolution and cultural development. Consequently, in the course of his efforts to find what was rational in the real of society as he found it, Hegel’s efforts to prove by logic the inferiority of women and the right of civilized nations to exploit their colonies (Hegel 1952), and so on, were to be exposed as racist and misogynist apologia.

But Hegel was not as wrong as at first sight he appears to be in trying to make a critique of the concept of Space the foundation for a theory of Nature, setting off from the Logic, understood as the truth of human activity. What Hegel overlooked, I believe, is that human activity is continuously under development, producing ever new and diverse forms of practical interaction with Nature, and that only the development of that activity as it is at any given time and place can form the basis for a critique of concepts of Nature, i.e., of the world beyond human labour processes. He overlooked the fact that he did not live at the end of history, that any theory of nature is essentially incomplete, and time would bring new forms of activity, disclosing new problems with our conceptions of Nature. In other words, “critique” is a cultural and practical process, not solely a process belonging to the domain of the philosopher.

Einstein resolved this question definitively, I believe, by his critique of Euclidean geometry, based on a careful examination of the practices of measuring distance and time. So Hegel’s error in his approach to the problem of the intelligibility of Nature was also a result of the move he made around 1804/5, when Spirit became something which pre-existed human history and manifested itself in human history, rather than being the nature of human beings en masse, to being an actor in human affairs rather than being those affairs themselves.

Next, we come to a key innovation made by Marx. For Hegel, ‘objectification’ means making one’s activity into something objective. All production is objectification. In his system of 1805/6 he claimed that the circulation of the products of one’s labour on the market was an important mode of recognition, practically demonstrating that one’s mode of life is valued by others. But in these conceptions, Hegel elides the distinction between an individual’s identity and the social formation within which their production is carried out. This elision is consonant with Hegel’s conception of social class. Hegel divided society into three classes, agriculture, business and public service. He lumped poor peasants and agricultural laborers into the agricultural class, along with rich farmers and the landed aristocracy, he lumped wage workers along with their employers into the business class, and low ranking civil servants into the ‘universal class’ along with powerful state officials.

Clearly, the positive construction placed on production for exchange, even when production is based on wage-labor, cannot be defended even within Hegel’s own terms. A wage worker is not simply a person engaged in manufacture, but part of a class of people who have been separated from the means of production they need in order to engage in productive work, and must sell their labor-power to those who own the means of production in order to live. The product of their labor is not their own property, and they do not alienate it or exchange it for products they need. The product belongs to the capitalist and is a form of capital put into circulation for the sole purpose of the self-expansion of capital. Consequently, the proletarian does not express her own subjectivity in the labour process, but on the contrary makes a rod for her own back.

As soon as the proletariat came on to the scene of history in their own right, Hegel’s apology for the exploitation of wage labor became transparent and unsustainable.

We will return to this much later, suffice it to say that consideration of the labor process as an objectification of subjectivity in isolation from the determination of an individual’s identity in the social relations of production is untenable for an emancipatory social theory. If all production is objectification, how does freedom differ from slavery? On the other hand, Marx’s apparently almost exclusive focus on the production process in his later work is an unhelpful and unnecessary limitation of the scope of the concept of activity. A close reading of Marx’s work will demonstrate that despite the decades he spent on the critique of political economy, he would agree that a consideration of all modes of activity are involved in the understanding of the social process. We have always to consider the whole process.

Finally, we come to the question of the state. As remarked above when we discussed the young Hegel’s motivations in taking up philosophy, the creation of a German state was a necessary step for the liberation of German people in a Europe dominated by Great Powers. He never knew a modern social movement. In his Philosophy of Right, he affirmed the need for forms of association mediating between the state and the individual; an individual could not identify with the state without mediating forms of activity. Bu Hegel never doubted that it was both possible and necessary for the state to mediate the social conflicts between its citizens, such that all citizens would see the state as the expression of their own subjectivity. This entailed rationalization of heredity monarchy and the divine right of kings. Again, once revolutionary movements of the oppressed took up the banner of social progress, calling for the overthrow of the state, such a philosophy was untenable for an emancipatory social theory. And Marx saw no need at all for a state placing itself above society for the purpose of mediating its conflicts, since in his experience, the state always took the side of party against the other.

So much for the fate of Hegel’s theory and those aspects of his philosophy which became outmoded once emancipatory movements of the oppressed entered the historical stage. In the next section we will turn to those aspects of Hegel’s philosophy which were appropriated by Marx for an emancipatory social theory.

Marx and Foundations of Activity Theory.

Once the Prussian government placed the Rheinische Zeitung under especially severe censorship in 1843, the young Marx took the opportunity to improve his education, and after marrying his childhood sweetheart moved to Paris: ‘the old university of philosophy and the new capital of the new world!’ he wrote to Ruge (Marx 1975d). Here he could take up the study of French socialism under the direction of the League of the Just, secret societies of French workers, the mystical Christian socialist Pierre Leroux, utopian communists like Victor Considérant and Étienne Cabet, the poets Lamartine, Heine and Herwegh, the anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, as well as other German refugees like Karl Grün and Arnold Ruge (Wheen 1999).

In August 1843, he met up with Engels, and after a trip to London to study political economy, they returned to Paris, but unable to restrain his lèse majesté, Marx soon found himself exiled again, and the crew took up residence in Belgium. Here they published the bitterly polemical Holy Family (Marx 1975a) attacking the Young Hegelians, and moving on to Feuerbach, Marx put down on a scrap of paper what became known as Theses on Feuerbach (Marx 1975b). Engels described this document as ‘the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook’ (Engels 1990a), but he said this only when publishing it for the first time, 5 years after Marx’s death. In The German Ideology Marx used a critique of Feuerbach to further elaborate these ideas, and then continued with gusto the polemic against the Young Hegelians, but as Marx later remarked: ‘We abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice all the more willingly since we had achieved our main purpose - self-clarification’ (Marx 1987).

Marx wrote very little on philosophy, and published even less. In financial terminology we could say that Marx believed in ‘back end loading’. That is to say, while working long and hard in thinking through the philosophical foundations of his practice, the payment came with the end result, and those of us who are interested in recovering that initial philosophical work have to dig for it. What philosophy he wrote tends to be critique and even his political writings are overwhelmingly commentary on events, giving voice to movements and the strivings of the participating groups. Rarely does Marx generalize and rarely does he make predictions - though there are rather charming predictions here and there which betray a revolutionary optimism of most irrepressible stamp. In the main, Marx allowed events themselves and the voices of the various actors to do his thinking, but in the odd page of manuscript or marginal note, he betrays his inner thinking process.


Theses on Feuerbach (Marx 1975b) is surely the founding document of Activity Theory, even though it remained unknown until after the author’s death. A few words are necessary to place it in the context of Hegel critique in Germany at the time it as written.

Having left behind the materialistic enquiry of his youth, Hegel had become more conservative; although still subject to censorship and critical of the regime, he actively dissuaded his pupils from involvement in agitation. After his death, Hegelianism was taken directly into political application in the form of critique of existing institutions. But the Young Hegelians were still very idealistic in philosophical terms, as reflected in the phrase of Engels quoted above about ‘the power of the mind over the world’.

Feuerbach, himself a Young Hegelian, had broken with this kind of idealism, and made real, physiological, anthropological human beings the foundation of his philosophy; ideas reflected a social and material reality, not the other way around. He illustrated this in The Essence of Christianity by demonstrating that a range of Christian ideas - eternal life, the Holy Trinity, the Personal God, etc., etc. - had their origin in earthly relations: the holy family was only a reflection of the real, earthly family, projected on to the heavens in order to give it extramundane necessity and justification. But as Marx saw it:

“§4. ... He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this worldly basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionized. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically.”

So Feuerbach is deluding himself if he thinks that his clever argument to the effect that the story of Mary and Joseph is nothing but a rationalization for the really existing bourgeois family is going have any impact on the believer or on Christian institutions. On the other hand, were the economic basis of the family to be changed, such that women could find good paying work to pay for child care, housework and so on, then the religious rationalization of the family would tend to be undermined.

So Hegel was right in conceiving of a ‘formation of consciousness’ in which ways of thinking, constellations of culture and ways of living mutually constitute one another. But if the claim that a criterion of truth or rule of inference lay at the heart of a formation of conscious was meant to mean that changes in the form of life were driven by problems in this logical kernel, then he is quite mistaken. Feuerbach was making this mistake. Even though he could show that the form of activity was the real foundation for the form of thought, he seemed to think that the form of thought could be changed by rational criticism alone, without first changing the form of activity and the material conditions on which it rested. On the contrary. Marx made this point ironically in the Preface to The German Ideology when he suggested that people only drowned because they believed in the law of gravity. “If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water.” (Marx 1975f) The forms of activity which are reflected in religious consciousness have a real, material foundation, they fulfil a need, and cannot be changed by convincing people to think differently. Activity is not an arbitrary or voluntaristic expression of thought, but has its foundation in the satisfaction of needs.

At a time when for everyone else Hegel was a ‘dead dog’ (Marx 1996a), it is remarkable that the first thesis praises Hegel (a.k.a. idealism) as against materialism:

“1. The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism ...”

Natural science was developing by leaps and bounds. By definition, natural science, that is, the science of Nature, was the consideration of experience from the standpoint of the presumption that the object being studied was an object existing independently of human activity, according to laws given independently of the human will and perceived by means of passive observation of the object.

The project of natural science, whose philosophical spokespeople were descendants of Descartes and Galileo, was a central pillar of the Enlightenment and a lever for social progress as well as technical progress during the nineteenth century. Idealism, by definition did not accept the idea of a universe existing independently of human thought and activity, but on the contrary emphasized that aspect of experience which is the product of the subject’s own activity.


“... idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity.”

So here is the concept which both idealism and ‘hitherto-existing materialism’ had not grasped: human activity is real, sensuous and itself objective, that is to say, in activity human beings are engaged with and constrained by a world which exists independently of their own consciousness, a material world; human activity is not just a thought; activity manifests properties of things existing independently of the individual actor, while at the very same time it is the objective, practical form of a thought.

“... Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity.”

The very idea of sensuous contemplation of the world is illusory; ‘sensuousness [is] practical, human-sensuous activity’ (§5) a point that Marx had made in his 1844 Manuscripts (Marx 1975e). Our knowledge of the world is our generalized experience of activity in the world. The world is only known to us through such ‘practical-critical’ (as opposed to contemplative) activity. ‘Practical-critical’ is here counterposed to theoretical-contemplative activity. Feuerbach ‘regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude’, and he overlooks the centrality of practical change, not just for its own sake (he thinks that change in the object will result from his ideological exposé), but because ‘practical-critical’ activity is the only way of changing or understanding the object. Nothing in the Theses may be taken as belittling thinking or philosophy. Theoretical work is an indispensable means of changing an object, which is in turn the raison d’être of all genuine theoretical work.

When Marx said that ‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question’, (§2) he is making practice the subject-matter, not just the criterion of truth. ‘The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.’ (§2)

As remarked above, Einstein could have been taking his lead from §8: “... All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice,” when he solved the mystery of the apparent lengthening of objects according to their relative speed by a careful study of the practice of measuring length, not by questioning Maxwell’s laws of electrodynamics. Ideas and theories constitute a reality which can be understood in its own right only up to a point; beyond that point, we have to discover the basis in human practice for a given theory or mode of thought, and its limits.

Emphasizing that activity is not simply itself an object of contemplation, but is also the process of formation of the subject, Marx said: “... The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” (§3) His remark that “the materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, ... is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society,” demonstrates the politics of this kind of materialism, for which human beings are taken as objects not subjects.

We have not touched on even half of the 11 theses, but we must sum up.

In the Theses Marx is setting out a position from which it will be possible to appropriate Hegel, as well as the entire tradition of classical German philosophy standing behind Hegel: the ultimate substance of the world for the purposes of a humanistic, emancipatory social science and political practice is activity. Activity is the purposive activity of human beings, understood as social beings, all of whose sentiments and ideas are social constructs. Human beings are not just ‘like’ other human beings; they are essentially part of the ensemble of social relations which are mobilized in activity, part of a larger social and historical process. Activity is simultaneously subjective and objective; activity is the ‘middle term’ mediating between subject and object.

Marx says very little about ‘activity’ after 1845, but his attention is directed everywhere to the ‘rational solution [of problems] in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice’. (§8) And when he says: ‘The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity,’ (§10) I see this as a clear indication that the whole of social life is to be taken as the domain of a humanistic social science, not any subordinate part of society, be that production, science politics or whatever.

A word on terminology. In the context of reading Marx, ‘practice’, ‘praxis’ and ‘activity’ are formally synonymous. But there are differences in connotation which have developed over time. ‘Practice’ forms a mutually constituting pair of terms with ‘theory,’ with theory and practice mutually constituting one another. ‘Praxis’ is sometimes used in the sense of a unity of theory and practice. But ‘theory’ can be used in a more or less narrow sense.

Marx did not intend some precise kind of distinction or use the words in a specialized way, and it is Marx’s idea which is of interest to us here. We will come to a precise definition of ‘activity’ (Tätigkeit) later when considering those writers who gave it a precise meaning. But in general, it is fair to say that Marx did not include within the ambit of the term ‘activity’ or ‘practice’ those things which we do without thinking, whether physiological processes through which our actions are realized, or things we can do consciously, but generally do without thinking, such as stepping over a kerb. The word ‘action’ is generally reserved for those things we do to achieve an immediate aim, such as ‘go to point A’. ‘Activity’ and ‘practice’ refer to combinations of actions whose meaning is culturally mediated. ‘Practice’ is generally reserved for those activities in which the reference to theory is more explicit, whilst ‘activity’ includes practices in which the actors have never reflected for a moment on why they do it, even though they do it purposively. But it is unlikely that Marx had such distinctions as these in mind when he penned the Theses on Feuerbach.

One more thing to clarify the conception of activity with which Marx grounded his theoretical work. The first section of The German Ideology which is formally directed at Feuerbach, but which is quite transparently a work of self-clarification, includes the following passage:

“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.” (Marx 1975c, my emphasis)

This formulation constitutes a further development of the claim made for activity in the Theses; Marx added ‘the real individuals’ and ‘the material condition under which they live’. This could be taken simply as a clarification of the term ‘activity’ - after all you can’t have activity without real individuals and material conditions. But it is not just that. I take this as the a materialistic transformation of Hegel’s claim that the subject is the unity of Individual, Particular and Universal. In fact, this was always implicit in Hegel’s philosophy, but it was mystified and idealistically distorted. ‘The real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live’ is not only exhaustive, but absolutely precise in specifying a foundation for a social theory in terms of well-defined mutually constituting concepts. It plays the equivalent role to that which in natural science is played by the philosophical concepts of matter, movement and natural law. We see that nothing like these conceptions is posited by Marx when he says that his premises are real individuals, their activity and the material conditions. Note also that these conception are at a more fundamental level than concepts like ‘forces of production’, ‘economic structure’ or ‘ideological forms’ and so on, which Marx uses later on.

Marx is not setting out the explanatory principles or axioms of a science in these passages. Such ideas can only be the outcome of a lengthy process of criticism and study. What he has created in these manuscripts, in the first months of his collaborative work with Engels, is the foundation of a world view, in particular a conception of substance.

Social Formations

During these early years, Marx also formulated his understanding of ‘social formation’ or ‘Gestalt’ in the sense we have been using the word, especially in his analysis of the 1848 Revolution and subsequent events in France. There has been a lot of Marxist social theory since 1852, but I just want to draw attention to a few points from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

The actors in history are corporate subjects, ‘personages’ (Personen) who play out a role in a drama that they participate in creating, but the conditions for which already exist. The tragedy that they are acting out is only then unfolding and Hegel had a point when he said that “The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering” (Hegel 1952). The conditions are only in the process of formation but people must act. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx 1979).

In making history, or in going about their day-to-day affairs, people draw on the cultural products of the past; people use images, stories, words, concepts which are the product of the past and are embedded in the existing social conditions. But in doing so they create a new ensemble of social relations, new stories and new images.

These ‘personages’ who feature on the political stage give voice to one or another of the roles in the political drama of the times. These roles are self-conscious forms of social practice which are constituted around a certain concept of the world and themselves. But while self-conscious, the forms of consciousness are not immediate projections of a form of practice on to a blank canvass, but on the contrary may be contradictory and deceptive. The actors ‘drape themselves in the guise’ of heroes of the past. Social activity is possible only thanks to the use of artefacts of some kind with which people identify themselves and thereby with each other. Symbols and icons of various kind are invariably used in this way; there is no ‘natural’ form of association.

Social conflict takes the form of a clash of differing concepts, but concepts which belong to certain forms or practice and ways of living and are represented using signs or artefacts of various kinds. Thus, large numbers of people organize themselves around different concepts of the world, however understood. Marx mentions mainly but not exclusively economic class fractions – the peasantry, the lumpenproletariat, the petit-bourgeoisie, and so on, but also groupings formed around religion, region or even degrees of radicalism and so on.

To one degree or another, the material conditions limit or foster different groupings according to their relation to the economic structure, much like the terrain plays its part in the fate of contending armies on the field of battle.

Marx never worked out a ‘theory of the state’ and I don’t think he worked out a theory of politics either, but his political commentaries like The 18th Brumaire give us an insight into how he understood social processes.

Ideas play a powerful part in the social process, in the sense of cultural products of the past which are used to facilitate identity formation and mediate social relations between people. The usefulness or otherwise of an idea, in this sense, is determined by the forms of social practice and the potential lying within those forms of social practice. Individuals are the material out of which the social process is enacted and they leave do their own stamp on how it is done, whether as common foot soldiers or generals.

The real actors are corporate subjects, which may or may not be self-conscious. Marx talks of the actions of the proletariat even at a time when they have only the barest glimpse of self-consciousness, when they are ‘in-themselves’. Thus social subjects are entities which develop in the way described by Hegel in his Logic. In other words, on the basis of a conception of the substance as ‘real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live’, Marx was able to appropriate Hegel’s conception of Gestalt or ‘formation of consciousness’ in his analysis of the social process.

Finally, we must review the work that absorbed most of Marx’s lifetime: the critique of political economy.

Marx on Political Economy

As editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842-43, Marx found himself in the ‘embarrassing position’ of having to discuss ‘material interests’, and felt his knowledge of such questions did not allow him to express an opinion (Marx 1987). As early as November 1843, Engels wrote ‘Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy’ and in January 1844, Marx wrote his “Comments on James Mill,” in which he elaborated a somewhat moralistic critique of bourgeois society, including passages like the following:

“When I produce more of an object than I myself can directly use, my surplus production is cunningly calculated for your need. It is only in appearance that I produce a surplus of this object. In reality I produce a different object, the object of your production, which I intend to exchange against this surplus, an exchange which in my mind I have already completed. The social relation in which I stand to you, my labor for your need, is therefore also a mere semblance, and our complementing each other is likewise a mere semblance, the basis of which is mutual plundering. The intention of plundering, of deception, is necessarily present in the background, for since our exchange is a selfish one, on your side as on mine, and since the selfishness of each seeks to get the better of that of the other, we necessarily seek to deceive each other. ...” (Marx 1975h)

Marx played with turning Hegelian ideas against themselves, while exploring the implications of private property, inequality of wealth, credit and particularly exchange of commodities, on the quality of human relationships. This was at the very beginning of the development of his communist ideas, but even here one can see elements of the critique of political economy which Engels was still knocking into shape more than 50 years later. Even before Marx left Paris in January 1845, a publisher had given him a down payment on his soon-to-be-completed book on the critique of political economy. And this work was soon-to-be-completed for another 22 years, until the pressure of involvement in the work of the newly-formed International in 1864 forced Marx to honor his promissory notes. Not that Marx was idle during these years; Engels inherited a mountain of manuscripts from which to produce the second and third volumes Capital and if time had not run out for him, a fourth volume on theories of surplus value.

The Grundrisse, a collection of notes written in 1857-58, begins with the words: “The object before us, to begin with, material production” followed up with a Hegelian exploration of relations between production, distribution and exchange (1986a). On 2 April 1858, Marx wrote to Engels that he would soon begin work on his Critique of Political Economy and the first of 6 books would be on Capital (followed by Landed Property, Wage Labour, etc.); this first book fell into 4 sections: Capital in general, Competition, Credit and Share capital, and the first section on Capital in general would be 1. Value, 2. Money, 3. Capital.

A few months earlier he had written the famous passage known as “The Method of Political Economy” which says in part:

“It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations. The former is the path historically followed by economics at the time of its origins. ... The latter is obviously the scientifically correct method. “ (Marx 1986)

So here we see that Marx has appropriated from Hegel, the idea of science developing from an initial ‘chaotic’ stage which leads to the production of an abstract concept of the subject matter; and then a second, ‘genuinely scientific’ process in which the whole subject matter is reconstructed from this abstract concept(s). The point is: with what concept or concepts to begin?


Marx goes on to make the following criticism of Hegel:

“Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind.” (Marx 1986 continued)

Thus Marx grants that Hegel has described how thought appropriates its subject matter, but according to Hegel this is also the process of production of the subject matter (“the sequence of the conceptions, which arise in this way, is at the same time a sequence of realisations” Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1952) §32). But Marx claims:

“But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being. For example, the simplest economic category, say e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, moreover a population producing in specific relations; as well as a certain kind of family, or commune, or state, etc. It can never exist other than as an abstract, one-sided relation within an already given, concrete, living whole.” (Marx 1986 continued)

The point is that the way people live is self-evidently not the outcome of a process of thought on the part of economic agents deciding to live that way, and nor is it the result of the activity of some extra mundane Mind. Forms of life are not the product of thought, but have a logic of development of their own. Like Nature, social life may be rational (i.e., intelligible), but it is not determined by rationality.

Concrete forms of human life do not develop out of abstractions, but as social life develops, abstract concepts take on new, more concrete, practical content.

“As a category ... exchange value leads an antediluvian existence. Therefore, [to the philosopher] the movement of the categories appears as the real act of production ... this is correct in so far as the concrete totality is a totality of thoughts, concrete in thought, in fact a product of thinking and comprehending; but not in any way a product of the concept which thinks and generates itself outside or above observation and conception; a product, rather, of the working-up of observation and conception into concepts. The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts, is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world.” (Marx 1986 continued)

But Marx does not posit the standpoint of natural science, i.e., the independent existence of the object, as is the case with merely theoretical thought, but the subject matter nevertheless remains objective in relation to any individual:

“The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical. Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition.” (Marx 1986 continued)

Marx then goes on to explore the distinction between the historical production of the categories and their reproduction in science. The starting point of Hegel’s analysis, the embryonic form of property, possession, precedes the family in both historical and logical sequence; but possession develops into property, which Hegel therefore places prior to the family in the sequence of presentation. In a 1833 addition to §32 of the “Philosophy of Right,” quoted above, Gans qualified this claim, accepting that the historical sequence of conceptions differs from the sequence of conceptions when presented in their logical relations. Gans’s explanation, drawing on lecture notes, is consistent with Marx’s explanation: possession develops into property, a juridical relation, only in and through the formation of civil society. The family likewise, as it appears in The Philosophy of Right, is a juridical relation, even though it has its roots in subjective spirit. Thus the historically earlier conception becomes more concrete as the concrete substratum within which it exists develops.

Marx observes that even though all the fundamental categories of political economy have existed for thousands of years, they had little practical significance until a fully developed market economy arose.

“The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society.” (Marx 1986)

The abstractions known to science come into existence through the development of the subject matter, society itself. It was only when the entire society was reorganized in accordance with capital, that abstract wage labor and money as a purely ideal relation came into being and could become a subject for scientific study. That is, abstract social relations are the product of the development of modern society, and it is the objectively existing abstract social relations which make it possible for science to apprehend these relations in the entire practical significance. Hegel deplored factory labor, the destruction of social fabric, the growing power of wealth and other aspects of the development of capitalism, but he never saw that these were aspects of a process of abstraction located not in thought but in practical activity.

This idea of ‘abstract’ forms of activity underlying the formation of abstractions in the head is a novel discovery of Marx. Abstraction is not just a process of thought reflecting upon activity, but a process of activity itself. This insight did not receive a lot of attention before Evald Ilyenkov (1960) took it up and developed the idea within the tradition of cultural-historical activity theory. We will return this later.

At this point Marx knows that he must build his critique of political economy around the simple categories which ‘come into their own’, so to speak, in the developed social conditions found in bourgeois society, but at this point he sees these ‘simplest relations’ as being Value, Money, and Capital.

In January 1859, Marx produced his “Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” which was to be published in June, and the sequence of categories to be dealt with has completely changed. The first book is indeed to be on Capital (in the final form, the entire work is Capital), but the first section deals exclusively with the Commodity. It would be a further 8 years before Volume I of Capital went to the printer.

His letters during these 8 years show that the work he intended to published covered the entire scope of the 3 volumes of Capital, of which the 1859 work was the first part. In November 1866 he became aware that ‘even intelligent people did not properly understand the question’ of the commodity as presented in the 1859 work, and the first chapter of Capital would have to deal with this afresh (Marx 1987a) and only a couple of months later, the proofs were off to the printer for Volume I.

So it seems that Marx only formulated the famous first chapter of Capital a few weeks before going to the printer. With good reason, we read a considerable amount of wisdom into this chapter, but it seems that this wisdom found its form only in the process of dialogue with his closest comrades, who just could not understand it. We have nothing better than this to help us understand the process by which Marx came to these ideas, we must simply take what he has written for what it says.

In the Preface to the first edition of Capital, written on 25 July 1867, Marx explains:

“Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty. That which concerns more especially the analysis of the substance of value and the magnitude of value, I have, as much as it was possible, popularized. The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour - or value-form of the commodity - is the economic cell-form.” (Marx 1996)

- the Urphänomen of political economy.

The Commodity Relation

Marx begins his defining and most famous work with the commodity relation (1996a). Not the most developed, characteristic and dominant relation of contemporary society, capital; not with the most ubiquitous and pervasive relation, money, not with the most fundamental and determinative relation, production, or the triad of production, distribution and exchange with which he began the Grundrisse; not with the source of all wealth, labor; not with an economic agent.

He began with a relation which is hardly ever to be seen in a modern, developed society, the commodity relation, i.e., exchange of commodities, the relation which, in a direct reference to Goethe’s concept, he explicitly acknowledged as the ‘cell-form’ of bourgeois society. It turns out of course, that money is a commodity, the ‘universal’ commodity, that labor is the use-value of a commodity, labour-power, that capital is a specific form of commodity, and in fact, all the phenomena of bourgeois society are shown to be species of the commodity relation.

It took 22 years of critical study of political economy, and about 45 years of study of philosophy, and an unremitting determination to resolve what “the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of,” to arrive at this point. But Marx discovered that exchange of commodities arises out of very basic and widespread conditions of human life, and once people start exchanging their products, a series of interconnected processes is set in motion; the conditions for each part of this process can be readily understood, and what is more, a tendency can be observed, of trade and capital accumulation to foster the very conditions that it itself requires for its life-process; in this way, capital develops as a Gestalt, a whole.

So, even though capital is a very different and much more developed relation as compared with exchange of commodities, with the commodity relation Marx has grasped the concept of bourgeois, i.e., capitalist, society. Exchange of commodities is the germ-cell, the seed, which once planted in suitable conditions, will grow into capitalism. And to really understand a social formation it is absolutely to grasp its concept in this way. It is not enough to know all its attributes – revolutionizing of the forces of production, rapid accumulation of capital, expansion of wage labor, colonization, growing inequality, and so on – we have to know the essence of the formation, where it comes from, its concept.

The commodity relation cannot form an explanatory principle for everything to be observed in modern society because even in the most developed capitalist society, not everything is subsumed under capital, yet. The nuclear family for example, which harbors unpaid labor as well as love and familial solidarity, may be penetrated by commodity relations, but in essence the nuclear family neither originates in the market nor is it a species of commodity exchange, yet. There are many things we do which are not motivated by the production of commodities or the accumulation of capital.

There is an undeniable tendency for the market to penetrate more and more aspects of human life. But this tendency can never be absolute for if there is nothing external to the market, no Nature providing the conditions for human life, no working class communities reproducing the next generation of workers, no public bodies restraining the ravages of the market, then human life would be extinguished. But Marx did discover the germ of capitalism, to which all aspects and relations of bourgeois society can be traced.

Marx was frustrated that Capital was simply not understood by recognized authorities in political economy; even Engels wanted to skip over the first chapter in his review (Marx 1988). There is no doubt that Marx wanted Capital to be accepted as a work of science, not ethics or politics - he even emphasized to Kugelmann that “Contribution to the critique of political economy” was “merely a subtitle” (Marx 1985) though it can well be argued that it ought to have been the main title. Despite Marx’s own hostility to any discussion of ethics (for example Marx 1987b), Capital is as much a work of ethics as it is a work of science. Capital is replete with words which have no place in a work of science: ‘egoism’, ‘exploitation’, ‘estrangement’, ‘degradation’, etc. Marx tries to deny it, but one cannot avoid the conclusion that Capital is a premier work on ethics (Brenkert 1983). When Marx observes:

“The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities.” (Marx 1996a)

then we can see that Marx has provided us with a social basis for the development of ethical principles. A struggle for the emancipation of the working class and the abolition of private property in the means of production, to which Marx is clearly committed, clearly poses a range of ethical problems. As Marx has already explained the dramatic and contradictory impact of the market in ethical terms in the Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, 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 drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” (Marx 1976)

With the commodity relation, as the germ-cell of bourgeois society, Marx not only grasps the essence of the matter scientifically, but also ethically. If the market makes “the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice” just what relation will transcend (aufheben) universal equality and create the ethical foundation for a better form of society? These are open questions, and we will return to this later.

One cannot discuss Marx and psychology without touching on fetishism, the idea of Marx most often associated with psychology. This idea is elaborated brilliantly in the fourth section of the first chapter of Capital (Marx 1996a). In this passage Marx turns around the Hegelian idea that people gain recognition through the valuing of the products of their labour on the market. Marx observes that people have long since lost sight of the idea of products circulating on the market as objectifications of the labor of definite people, and do not see their relation, and the relation of other people to commodities as human relationships mediated by commodities; on the contrary, people ascribe human powers to commodities. So if a product of their labor is valued at a given amount, people do not see this as a relationship between their labor and the labor of the person whose needs are met by their labor, but rather that the product exercises greater or lesser power.

This idea has very brought application; it is not only in the production of commodities that human relationships are mediated by artefacts. In fact this is always the case. Human beings create and maintain their relationships with each other by means of the production of artefacts and the vesting of these artefacts with meaning and value.

Thus Marx shows how ‘fetishism’ - the naïve religious belief in the power of icons and other objects of religious significance - is by no means the preserve of societies governed by priests and soothsayers, but is ubiquitous in modern bourgeois society. This is most striking in the form of value - something which exists not in the eye of the beholder, something merely subjective, but embedded in the real social relations of the market. Value adheres to products, while at the same time, value expresses nothing more than the relation between the buyer and seller of the commodity.

To a great extent, the aim of Marx’s work is to expose the deception and mystification involved in the commodity fetishism which is a product of the dominance of commodity production. In the Introduction to Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he said: “For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism,” (Marx 1975f) and went on to illustrate his approach to the critique of religion, in line with the ideas later expressed in Theses on Feuerbach and discussed above. The use of the motif of fetishism, a form of religious consciousness, to describe the ideological hold that commodity production has over us, allows Marx to tie the issue of critique of ideology to its ‘secular’ foundation in activity. “The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. ... Religious suffering is ... the expression of real suffering ... To call on [people] to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (Marx 1975f) Thus Marx makes it clear why a critique of political economy must at the same time be a science: commodity production meets real needs, it is a necessary illusion, an illusion with real content; it is the mode of existence of bourgeois society. Commodity fetishism is not an illusion so much as the ideal aspect of a specific mode of life.


In summary, Marx came to agreement with Hegel on the need for science to begin from what Goethe had called the Urphänomen. Whereas Hegel claimed that private property was the germ-cell on which to base a theory of the modern state, Marx discovered that the commodity relation is the cell-form of bourgeois society. With this conception, Marx created the basis not only for an emancipatory human science, but also for an emancipatory ethics.

Marx broke with Hegel on a number of crucial principles. He made the substance of his philosophy not Spirit, but “real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live.” History is not a thought process. Marx saw that exploitative property relations meant that objectification meant alienation, and likened the power of the ideology of bourgeois society to fetishism. Marx was thus able to recover a notion of social life as a Gestalt, but as opposed to Hegel’s ‘society of mutual reconciliation’ (Marx 1975g), Marx had a social formation with deeply antagonistic contradictions.