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  • Writer's pictureBrett Darlington

Junior Year Essay: Socio-economic development from a materialist perspective. Karl Marx

The German Ideology is an essay written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels regarding the materialist conception of history and its contrast to the dominant Hegelian German ideology at the time. Marx begins The German Ideology by expressing his disdain for The Hegelian German Philosophers of his era. Hegel’s idealistic writings on history and the conceptions derived from it neglect the material reality of modern eras “Hegel…turned the whole material world into a world of ideas and the whole of history into a history of ideas”(Marx, 1845, p. 30). Marx argues that this material progress which is so dominant in the historical progress of man, is and has always been, the foundational development of one’s consciousness and therefore the freedom of the self-consciousness of spirit. In contrast, Hegel deems history a trajectory for the nonlinear progression of the freedom of self-consciousness. His interpretations are composed purely of the political and socioeconomic transitions throughout history as the development of the human consciousness and a precedent for where it is now. In doing so, Hegelian philosophy perceives that one’s reality is contingent on the faculty of one’s self-consciousness (Evans, 2018, p. 1). In contrast, Marx argues that one’s self-consciousness is contingent on their material environment and more specifically, their mode of production and therefore social intercourse. Marx points out that during the time of his writing (1815-1850), the citizens of Germany suffer from a lack of representation. Revolutions and massive political tensions create geographic and nationalistic paradigm shifts throughout Germany, and during these shifts, the young Hegelian philosophers of his era “never leave the realm of philosophy (Marx, 1845, p. 34)”. From this, one will notice that Marx’s issue with the Hegelian Philosophers of his era comes from their neglect of the people. More specifically the idealistic ideology that they sensationalize as a continuing end of the progressive human consciousness in their abdication of real human experience. In this essay we will demonstrate Marx’s material conception of history, its contrast to the alluded flaws relating to the Hegelian perception of history, and Marx’s branded purview of production and labor.

Karl Marx begins his proposition of the materialist conception of history with the premise that distinguishes man from animals. Thoughts and prayers are only expressed peripherally in the life of man, what most distinguishes us from animals is the ability to produce our mode of life. This can be considered any desirable mode of production which consequently ends in our ability to survive and sustain life. This material mode of production is in essence what we are to ourselves and others. This mode is a definite activity of production and therefore expression, which shapes our consciousness, “as individuals express their life, so they are”(Marx, 1845, p. 37). Thus, their conscious reality is highly dependent on their mode of production. Naturally, production increases as the population rises, leading to intercourse among men looking to acquire sustenance that may not be available in their relative material environment. This is where the division of labor and social intercourse enter human history and take man from a tribal state to a communal one. As goods and services organize, they are divided into sects of labor within adjacent markets. As the division of labor grows, so does the social intercourse of man. This mutual growth leads to rural and urban sects of the state and eventually, if growth continues, markets will expand outside of the state. This form of social intercourse among individuals carries at scale into international and intranational relations. As one’s consciousness is contingent on one’s mode of production, it follows that one’s interests, wants, and desires do as well. Due to the division of markets, and social intercourse within them, there will be a unity among these interests within a given sect of labor. This contrast of interests developed within one’s material environment is recognized in the divergence of communal ideals among rural populations and urban cities. This is the process of development within the consciousness of man. From material environments and modes of production one’s phantom voice is created.

The material environment in which one develops dictates their reality. This call to labor and one’s mode of production is a required expression of one’s life for the many. Marx makes the point that to liberate man, we must learn from history and come to understand it as it is (Marx, 1845, p. 44). Throughout history man has required slaves to do the abject work of producing. Though as history unfolds man innovates and creates short cuts that increase value while lessening the effort per capita, this is ideal. through tribal and then communal eras of history, this transition changed the social relations between consumers and producers and in turn provided innovation in agricultural and industrial efficiency which lessened the ancillary mode of production era by era. Soon slavery was no longer needed to the same extent that it had been and through these changes, people were progressively liberated from their required mode production. This progressive liberation of the people from their required mode of production and therefore their subjective reality is the point of contention between Marx and the Hegelian philosophers who represented the current German ideology. Liberation is the freedom from the requirement to produce, he states as we have discussed: “liberation is a historical and not a mental act”(Marx, 1845, pp. 43-44) opposing the purview of Hegelian freedom which starts in the subjective and descends into the material conditions of one’s life, again neglecting the material conditions that influence one’s self-conscious reality.

            The four aspects of social activity which grow with necessity at scale with production are the first historical moments that can be categorized as the early foundations of our material development and can be thought of as the initial point on our progressive timescale. These three aspects are unconditional in nature, they are the desire for sustenance like food, clothes, and water; the satisfaction of trivial wants and needs like chocolate or convenience; and the proliferation of the species by way of family and the propagation of our species. This last act implies a cooperation between humans revealing a fourth aspect of development which Marx defines what he calls the “productive force” (Marx, 1845, pp. 48-49). At this elementary stage of human history there exists little to no level of self-consciousness. Only in relation to others and an understanding of our individual selves outside of our environment do we regard our self-consciousness. Therefore, at this initial point we do not associate with the non-existent implings of our phantom voices, only with the consciousness of our immediate environment. This implies that self-consciousness, the ability to consciously identify as one, is the product of social intercourse, and its contingency on production. Humanity will never devolve from these four aspects of being before subjecting itself to the will of the market, and at this point remains in a herd-like consciousness. The next step is an increase in population by way of propagation. In accordance with the increase in population, demand for goods and services also increases, leading to an increase in production. To meet this demand for production and therefore goods, man must socialize around these modes of production. This creates the division of labor and in time, this division will be separated into what we have discussed earlier, a division between rural and urban communities with their own communal ideals, giving way to the liberty of self-consciousness. Physical and mental predispositions naturally allocate man into these divisions of labor and due to their dependency on each other there will arise contradictions among them, “The only possibility of their not coming into contradiction lies in negating in its turn the division of labor” (Marx, 1845, pp. 50-51). Due to the necessity of this contradictory squabbling proliferated by the division of labor and necessitated by social intercourse, there will always reside a contrast of opinions between communities within different modes of production.

            Marx holds Hegelian philosophers in a comical amount of contempt for their neglect of the material conditions of the German people and their discontinuity of historical precedence. In this essay, I have simplified Marx’s writings as they pertain to the materialist conception of history and how that concept is at complete odds with the Hegelian philosophers’ opinions of self-consciousness and collective development. Hegelians believe that one’s self-consciousness shapes their reality, whereas Marx has shown that one’s self-conscious reality is contingent on their material environment. His argument starts from the beginning of man’s material development, from tribal to communal to feudal and then present, and how that development has shaped international and intranational economies and societies. In doing so, he explains; How a person’s mode of production shapes their material and subjective reality through the division of labor.

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