The Materialist Conception of History
Marx began from the premise that ideas are inseparable from the material circumstances of men - that is, of "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." Ideas have no independent existence (so that their mere discovery would pave way to the liberation of mankind). In reality, conceptions of the Young Hegelians, be it atheism, self-glorification or self-consciousness - conceptions that allegedly debunked Hegel's theology of the Spirit, the Absolute, etc. - were flawed, because they were not based on the material conditions of men. In a key passage Marx delivers a strong judgement on the "ideology" of the Young Hegelians:
"The phantoms formed in the human brain are ... sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life."
Life of the Young Hegelians was that of the German middle class. So, necessarily, their ideas were conditioned by their material circumstances. Marx aims to "uncloak these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves; [to] show how their bleating merely imitates in a philosophic form the conceptions of the German middle class; how the boasting of these philosophic commentators only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions in Germany." The existence of the German middle class would have been impossible without the onset of industrialization, and that, in turn, depended on the invention of the steam engine, etc. - such was Marx's materialist conception of history. History was not made by princes or preachers, but collectively by the mankind in the ever continuous process of production. This or that mode of production, writes Marx, is the basis for all history, and it explains "the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc." The Young Hegelians tried to define reality on the basis of abstract ideas - and their mental conjunctures were a matter of ideology. Marx offered a different approach: defining ideas on the basis of reality - this was a science.
Production of life, as Marx saw it, gave rise to social relationships - co-operation of individuals. As it happened, for much of the human history, men had been divided into opposing classes: the rulers and the ruled. The ruling class exploited the labour of the destitute majority: whether of slaves, as in antiquity, or of serfs as in the feudal ages, or of the proletariat of Marx's own times. The ruling classes determined the social and political institutions of a historical period, most prominently - religion and the State. These institutions were so designed as to prolong the supremacy of the ruling classes and further the exploitation of the ruled, and they could not be overthrown except by a revolution from below, when the great masses of the oppressed comprehend fully the wretchedness of their state and rise against the oppressors. Marx thus became a prophet of the proletarian revolution: he called upon the workers of the world to overthrow the oppressive institutions. The point of the communist revolution a la Marx broadly corresponds with the visions of the Young Hegelians - the liberation of the oppressed and the destitute. "In communist society", writes Marx, "where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." The road towards such unprecedented liberation lies not through any ingenious ideas, as seen by the Young Hegelians, but through material abundance, impossible in any except the industrial age. For a revolution to become imminent, the existing state of affairs "must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity "propertyless", and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development." That is why, notwithstanding the brilliant ideas of Charles Fourier or Comte de Saint-Simon, transition to communism had to wait until pre-requisite conditions had materialized. Marx believed the time was ripe. In the Communist Manifesto he asserted that the German proletariat was more developed than their English counterparts in the 17th Century or the French in the 18th - on both of these occasions revolutions to liberate the mankind failed because the material conditions were none-existent, goods were scarce and the proletariat was in the early stages of development; hence the good ideas - even as good as those of Feuerbach, Stirner and Bauer would have not sufficed to break the chains and free the humanity. Now, however, Marx produced a scientific theory that predicted a revolution in Germany within a foreseeable time: the true science of Marxism has triumphed over the baseless ideologies of the Young Hegelians. The stubborn character of the historical process certainly leaves little space for political action to expedite the onset of the proletarian revolution. But Marx himself betrayed scientific Marxism. Does he not, for example, follow in the footsteps of the Young Hegelians when he says, in the Theses on Feuerbach that whilst "the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it?" In the Comunist Manifesto, too, Marx declared: "Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains." These calls to arms that are in such dissonance with Marx's own conclusion in the German Ideology that the future of the proletarian revolution is independent of the good wishes of the philosophers mark the limits of Marxism as science and unveil Marxism as ideology. The contradiction between Marx the Scientist and Marx and Revolutionary is so manifest as to be irreconcilable. In fact both "Marxisms" received further development in the following years.
Marxist Critique of Liberalism
Some years ago I witnessed an interesting conversation between the former Chinese Ambassador to London Mr. Ma and my good friend. His Excellency condemned American democracy as a hoax. American institutions of power, he said, are dominated by the ruling elites and a commoner's voice means nothing. Whatever the merits of Mr. Ma's argument, it is of no particular novelty. Indeed, 160 years ago Karl Marx the Scientist argued that the social and political institutions of any society in any historical period are rooted in the material circumstances of that period and, moreover, serve the interest of the ruling class. Marx's arguments opened the doors to considerable controversy, and the theme has not lost its relevance to-date, even if the terms of the debate have changed. The Soviets used to have the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, which in all honesty studied the phenomenon of the liberal democracy in the West, attempting to uncover the scientific linkages between the Western power-wielding institutions and the multi-million dollar magnates. Pravda was ever full of statements about the treacherous nature of the Western capitalists who, under the guise of their liberal ideology duped the working people into submission. The Western media, of course, dismissed such scientific analysis as pure propaganda of Marxist ideology.
With the end of the Cold War, the End of History has arrived, as Francis Fukuyama eagerly reported. Western liberalism has finally liberated mankind, writes Fukuyama, acknowledging of all philosophers Hegel for this powerful insight. Marx would have probably scorned Fukuyama as a Young Hegelian reborn - someone who, on the basis of pure abstractions makes judgements on the course of history, while moreover unconsciously advancing the interests of his class. But Fukuyama is only a latecomer to a whole company of thinkers who applauded Western liberalism (among them, Daniel Bell and S.M. Lipset) and, with its onset, the "end of ideology". Thus, Lipset writes: "democracy is not only or even primarily a means through which different groups attain their ends or seek the good society, it is the good society itself in operation." Yet the Marxist critique of liberalism holds that "legal protections and guarantees involve a formalism that masks unequal relations of power. ... [G]uarantees of private property may apply to all, but they systematically disadvantage those who do not own productive resources." In this context, let us consider law. The usual Marxist indictment of law involves the notion that the "ruling class ... uses the state apparatus, including the legal system to further their ends." Justice herself becomes a form of ideology - in a class society there can be no justice except that which serves the interests of the rulers. Accordingly, only with the withering away of the State, as predicted by Marx, justice would triumph while the legal system as an ideology would also wither away. Such an idealistic view has been rightly criticized by, among others, Collins who argues that the "contention that law must wither away must appear unrealistic in view of the probable opportunities for conflict and misuse of power." On closer inspection, however, one sees that Marx's own view of liberal legal system were not overly negative. True, law, as Marx perceived it, was rooted in a particular ideology that served the interest of the ruling class. Thus, "if in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process." But inverted images are still recognizable, and so law even as an ideology had a functional value, serving the cause of justice even in protecting the dominance of the rulers over the ruled. To the extent that such a duality of the liberal legal system is a persisting phenomenon, one must wonder whether law in the Marxist interpretation could have scientific as well as ideological elements. Marx himself leaves the distinction unclear.
McCarney further investigates this functional element in Marx's conception of ideology via discussion of economic theory. According to McCarney Marx distinguished between the economic scientists such as Smith, Ricardo and Mill and the "vulgar" economists like Malthus. While the science of the fathers of the liberal economics is conditioned by their material circumstances and therefore has elements of ideology, some statements of theirs are objectively scientific. Malthus's claims, by contrast, were basically unscientific, and he was merely an ideologue of the interests of the landed aristocracy. In light of such an interesting functional distinction, one must assume that the closer this or that writer stood to the Marxist worldview, the better were his or her chances of being a scientist, as opposed to a mere ideologue. Thus, in the German Ideology Marx admits that of all the Young Hegelians Feuerbach stands the closest to historical materialism: "when occasionally we find such views with Feuerbach [views on material history], they are never more than isolated surmises and have much too little influence on his general outlook to be considered here as anything else than embryos capable of development." Alas, Feuerbach never quite graduated into a true scientist.
Marxism as an ideology
Marx understood Marxism as a science, not as an ideology. Yet, inasmuch as Marx developed a programme for action in, most famously, the Communist Manifesto, he, too, became an ideologue as opposed to a mere observer of the inevitable historical process. Reflections on Marxism as an ideology appear in writings of a number of prominent thinkers. Mannheim, for example, describes ideology as the "whole outlook of a social group" and concludes that Marxism, too, is an ideology. Michael Bakunin also understood Marx's theory "as an ideology in the precise sense that it articulates, among other things, the particular interests and aspirations of an intellectual stratum and potential ruling class." Marxism as an ideology was further developed by Lenin who sought to wake up the masses to their true state of misery so that they rise in revolution. Lenin expected that the First World War would unite the workers of the world and become a precursor to the world revolution, and he was fairly annoyed when the German, the French and the Russian workers rallied respectively around their governments to the detriment of the proletarian internationalism. Lenin attributed this shortcoming to the persistence of false consciousness among the workers, that is - that they fell under the influence of capitalist ideology. Hence, the need for the Marxist-Leninist ideology to educate the workers.
At the same time, Lenin furthered the study of Marxism as a science. In Imperialism as the Highest Stage of Capitalism he argued, on the basis of a wealth of economic data, that the marriage of industries and banking intensified capitalist contradictions and made the life of workers ever more unbearable. Lenin, in Marx's scientific fashion, predicted a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries, notably in Germany. Yet the limits of Marxism as a science and the potential of Marxism as an ideology became all the more evident when the proletarian revolution happened, of all places, in backward Russia. For several months, the Bolsheviks eagerly awaited a world revolution but it did not come about, and so the Russians set out to construct socialism in one country in utter defiance of Marx as a scientist, but nevertheless under the banner of the Marxist ideology.
The Chinese Communist Revolution was even more anti-Marxist from the point of view of science, inasmuch as it happened in a predominantly agrarian country. Stalin even ridiculed Mao as a "Cave Marxist" and the Soviet economists were at a loss to explain the Chinese Revolution on the basis of scientific Marxism. Nevertheless, Mao himself applauded Marxism as an ideology. "On the Earth", he once said, "Marx has become God and Lenin - his vicar." Obviously, Marxism elevated to the status of a religion lost its scientific qualities and became a pure ideological dogma. More or less the same situation materialized in Mongolia where Marxism in the 1920s supplanted Tibetan Buddhism as the dominant ideology in a fundamentally backward state. As for the East European people's democracies, Marxism as a science never had a chance, but Marxism as an ideology was brought by the advancing Soviet army in the end of the Second World War.
What would have Marx said about these revolutionaries who depended on Marxism as an ideology and rarely employed Marxism as a science? They have obviously committed the same errors as the Young Hegelians who "descended from Heaven to Earth" instead of "ascending from Earth to Heaven" in the sense that they employed Marxist ideas without consideration for the material circumstances of the time. But we have seen that Marx himself fell victim to the same wishful thinking, unable, as it were, to overcome the urge of being a revolutionary rather than a mere scientist. This was particularly true of young Marx. Althusser, a prominent Marxist, argued that in Das Capital Marx at last established historical materialism as a science and abandoned his ideological inclinations. Althusser believed that the "strength of this scientific Marxism ... was that, at the moment of the production of concepts, the scientist was disinterested - beyond all attachment to or interest in the objects of the social world." Althusser argued that religious, ethical and political concerns all had to be abandoned if thought were to become truly scientific. But certainly Marx never abandoned ethical concerns and Lenin remained first and foremost a politician. Even the neo-Marxists of the 1950s and the 1960s, who developed allegedly scientific theories of autonomous economic development of the former colonies did not in reality escape their ethical concerns of redressing the backwardness of the third world. One must wonder, therefore, whether Althusser's insistence on complete detachment from the object of study is a necessary pre-requisite for a truly scientific inquiry. If so, few Marxists have ever become scientists, and Marx himself must have fallen far short of such a difficult aim.
Marx's criticism of the Young Hegelians focused on their detachment from reality. These German philosophers - Ludwig Feuerbach, Max Striner and Bruno Bauer imagined unlikely conceptions, and defined reality on their basis. They rebelled against the conservative outlook of the Old Hegelians and tried to debunk Hegel himself who, they said, did not escape the chains of his own worldview. The liberation of men, according to the Young Hegelians was attainable in the realm of pure thought. The chains of men - religion, the State, etc. - were only phantoms of imagination. Marx dismissed these ideas as unscientific. The Young Hegelians, Marx argued, did not realize that their ideas were rooted in their material circumstances, that they unconsciously advanced the ideology of the German middle class, whose interests they represented. In opposition to the Young Hegelians' ideology Marx developed a science of historical materialism. He reviewed the historical process from antiquity to his date only to find that history was driven at all stages by production. Each historical epoch had a peculiar mode of production, but ideas at all times depended on the development of the forces of production, and on the material circumstances of the ideologues. These powerful Marxist theses stirred considerable debate around the basis of the social and political institutions of the modern age. The Marxist critique of liberalism held that the State and the Law merely served to perpetrate existing inequalities and protect private property. Interpreters of Marx began to speak for Marx himself. The Soviet propaganda capitalized on the fake nature of Western liberalism, relying, legitimately, on Marx's statements, such as that of the Communist Manifesto: "The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class." The defenders of liberalism emphasized Marx's "functionalism" - that is, that Marx did not entirely condemn liberalism as an ideology, and even attributed to its certain scientific elements. McCarney, for instance, makes an argument along these lines. In any case, in Marx's view, the closer one was to Marxism, the closer he came to the true science. Nevertheless, elements of ideology are fairly apparent in a number of writings of Marx, such as the Manifesto. Marx was not satisfied with only being a philosopher, but he had ethical concerns for the fate of the proletariat, and ethical elements in the Marxist philosophy appear to the prejudice of detached scientific inquiry. Marxism as an ideology was taken up by Lenin and the Soviet revolutionaries. In the Soviet Union it co-existed side by side with Marxism as a science. It is no wonder that the Central Committee of the Communist Party formerly had the Department of Science as well as the Department of Ideology - both departments dealt with Marxism, but from different angles. Other ultra-left revolutionaries, including Mao Zedong, completely disregarded the scientific content of Marxism and only held up Marxism as an ideology. The careful distinction Marx drew between science and ideology later became muddled to the point that for many a Marxist Marx himself appeared inverted as in the camera obscura. Such an unusual challenge to the science of Marxism can only be understood as a testament to the still greater power of Marxism as an ideology