Karl Marx (with Friedrich Engels) lays out his method of revolutionary critique in The German Ideology. Not a professional philosopher (like Kant and Hegel, or Feuerbach) and more like an intellectual journalist absorbed in political economy committed to the Revolution, Marx, drawing from the philosophical currents of his day (Hegel’s idealism and Feuerbach’s materialism), nonetheless achieved, through humanism, a brilliant methodological synthesis that would inform his quasi-philosophical inquiries. This method is none other than historical materialism. (Compare with the more concrete yet cruder delineation of the base and the superstructure, of which the models in this post and the following, like those by Gramsci and Althusser, are re-articulations.)
[Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation]
Model 1: “Schematic”
The starting point of the method is “real,” i.e. “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” (176). What is given/assumed are “men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions” (181). The first premise, in other words, are human beings, individuals that are materially organized and, consequently, related to nature (and each other) in structural arrangements that are modified (and have been put in place) “through the action of men” (176, 177). These individuals are set apart from other material bodies by the fact that they have consciousness and (as such?) they “produce their means of subsistence, [. . .] which is conditioned by their physical organization, [. . . in that process] indirectly producing their actual material life” (177). The starting point is thus a ‘dialectical’ relation: human beings are in concrete material conditions, which are (re-)created/organized by them.
Human production “depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence [individuals] find in existence and have to reproduce” (177). The means of subsistence are the productive forces (the what, e.g. raw materials, derived from nature and man); their nature (and the nature of their reproduction) the mode of production (the how, e.g. the household, artisanal, or factory system, defined more or less by technology, broadly speaking). The mode of production is not simply the (re)production of physical existence but is a “definite form of activity [. . .], a definite form of expressing [. . .] life” that characterizes individuals in a particular social organization (177). The mode of production, in other words, is no mere reproduction of what is necessary for survival (i.e. the bare minimum), but in being a human ‘activity’ is the mode (as in Heidegger) itself in which individuals express themselves and how they live—a mode of living/expressing/manifesting life itself—which characterize the individuals in their existence. The mode of production thereby determines not only material conditions but, included in life, the state of ideas as well.
The development of the productive forces implies developments in the division of labor (“each new productive force [. . .] causes a further development of the division of labour”), which are but “different forms of ownership” in society, i.e. a power relation (177). The history of the division of labor can be traced from the latent division in the family, to the division between citizen and slave, to the division between (agricultural) country (with peasants) and (industrial and commercial) towns (with individual labor) (178-9). There is a basic similarity in these divisions—i.e. subjection—“but the [specific] form of association and the [particular] relation of direct producers were different [in each mode] because of the different conditions of production” (179). The particular form that the power relation (politics) takes is determined by the particular form of the conditions of production (economy, which from scarcity organizes things so as to achieve efficiency and effectiveness) (and vice versa?).
The mode of production in which the last division mentioned was operative (feudalism), although there was “little division” there (only between “princes, nobility, clergy, and peasants in the country; and masters, journeymen, apprentices, and [. . .] casual labourers in the towns”), is insightful to the current mode (capitalism), particularly in the emergence, in addition to land in the country, of capital in the town as the “chief form of property,” and of individual labor simultaneous with it (179). The simultaneous emergence of capital and labor is indicative of the fact that the division of labor really is but a particular organization of ownership in society, which is represented by capital (hence with change in one comes change in the other). Links from one mode (feudalism) to the other (capitalism) imply not only shifts in the forms of politics as economic conditions change, but continuities as well, continuities that lead to breaks.
“The existing stage in the division of labour determines also the relations of individuals to one another with reference to the material, instrument, and product of labour,” i.e. to ends, wealth, property, and the ability to further ends (177-8). The division of labor, in other words, entails a particular form of the relations of production. At an even more primary level, relations are necessarily entailed by production so long as it is social, whatever its form is, with or without division in labor. “The fact is [. . .] that definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations,” of which the division of labor (and the interrelation, hierarchy, and subjection implied by it) is but the exemplification (180). As such, “the social structure and [implied with it] the State [i.e. legal and political entities organizing social relations, e.g. the Constitution, laws, government institutions; politics narrowly defined] are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals [. . .] as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions, and conditions independent of their will” (180) (my emphasis).
“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” (180). The ideal (or ideology, or, together with the State, the ideological ‘superstructure’), in other words, is interwoven with (in contrast to being a “direct efflux” of (180)) material production (and its relations). Rather than determined by the material ‘base’ or ‘infrastructure’ (the economy, narrowly defined) (as “sublimate” “phantoms”), individuals (possessing an active mind, as in the idealist subject) produce “their conceptions, ideas, etc.,” i.e. their ideology (180). These individuals productive of ideology, however, existing in the social, are, it must be remembered, “real, active men [. . .] conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse [i.e. the relations] corresponding to these,” i.e. conditioned by material conditions (180). These material conditions have, of course, it must also be remembered, reached a concrete determination by a historical act of organization by a collective of individuals (using, among other things, the active mind). Hence production is not only material. In a ‘dialectical’ manner, there is both material and ideational production, and it is the economy of both productions—production in general—that takes on a form as the ‘mode of production,’ that thereby defines life.
By “consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process” (180), what is being hit upon is precisely this ‘dialectical’ relation between the material and the ideal: material existence is what one is conscious of (which is what makes consciousness concrete, as opposed to abstract thinking in the idealists); material conditions are produced not merely by purely material production (which would be analogous to the mechanical determinism of crude materialism) but also by ideational/ideological production, which embodies its ideas in material things; existence refers to the mode of life itself (the ‘actual life-process’), which includes both matter and ideas. It is not that one precedes the other (thereby determining it). “[Individuals], developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking” (180-1). That is to say, as material conditions develop, individuals alter (and, along with them, their thinking and ideas, in fact their whole existence); these material conditions, however, are (re-)developed by human beings, using both their bodies and minds.
“Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (181), in which ‘consciousness’ is set apart as a specific target because of the excessive emphasis that the idealists put into it, as though it acted alone, on its own (comparable to the elements and forces of crude materialism determining the whole situation); and in which life implies the whole mode of life, i.e. not only material bodies but (conscious and unconscious) ideas as well (e.g. as in how life is lived, as a ‘mode’). All throughout the explication of the method, certain emphases had to be made; hence the seeming lapse into crude materialism indicated by some descriptions and choices of words. There is a specific reason for this. There is an express contrast being made, a specific target being attacked—the idealist approach—the ideology that has dominated (despite Feuerbach’s materialism) the German philosophical scene: a German ideology. The method had to be contrasted with that, at all costs, even at the cost of seeming to lapse into the diametrical opposite—crude materialism—which, in abstraction, is really but the same as the present target.
Thus, despite appearances, it is not that one—material conditions—is the ‘base’ (foundation, support, or determinant) for the other—ideological ‘superstructure.’ As in the chicken or egg question, all the material and ideological elements co-exist (i.e. at the same time), composing what is a flat social formation, based on the (economic) activity (arranged politically) throughout life (in both its material and ideological aspects): univocal production. This doesn’t mean that the elements have no influence on each other. On the contrary. Material and ideological components directly and mutually determine each other in a ‘dialectical’ way. The social formation has no base or superstructure; it is not a hierarchical building composed of many floors in which the lower levels are necessary for and move ahead those they support. Rather, the view, the only view possible, is from above, from the top, over (or under, it doesn’t matter) a flat surface where materials and ideologies are interwoven with each other. If there is something that is primary, it is production, the human activity, but only in the sense that it is what gives shape to human relations. Even then, production inevitably implies relations. It is virtually impossible for production to take place without relations.
Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” In Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by David McLellan, 175-208. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.