Why did Marx reject idealism?

Historical materialism

I. Historical context of the text "The German Ideology"

The genesis of the German ideology leads to Paris. Here Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began to deal with the views of the Young Hegelians on a larger scale, both in terms of content and journalism. Marx alone had already previously, as editor of the "Rheinische Zeitung", occasionally railed against the "dubious feature pages" of the "Berliner Freie". In the joint work “The Holy Family - or Critique of Critical Criticism against Bruno Bauer and Co.”, Marx and Engels documented their coinciding theoretical and philosophical ideas and conceptions for the first time. The demonstration of the following signal to the public was particularly significant about this publication: We (Marx and Engels) are working closely together.

The starting point for reacting even more intensely than before to the Young Hegelian authorship was the appearance of the third issue of Wiegand's "Vierteljahresschrift", published in 1845. A preliminary answer to the Leipzig Council was followed at the end of 1845 by the decision to draw up a much sharper critical balance sheet, which at the same time is to be understood as a reckoning with one's own earlier views: “The German ideology. Critique of the latest German philosophers in their representatives Feuerbach, Bauer and Stirner, and of German socialism in its various prophets. ”In German ideology, Marx and Engels combine the definition of the principles of historical materialism with a criticism of all of idealism, dogmatism and the Utopian thinkers. Speculative philosophy and the "true" socialism propagated by the Young Hegelians thus countered a theoretical prerequisite for the proletarian class struggle. During the lifetime of Marx and Engels, only a small part of the criticism of “true socialism” was published as an article in the “Westphalian Steamboat”. All German publishers refused to print the entire manuscript. In addition to the publishers, state authorities, police and the Communist Party Marx and Engels resented their unequivocal rejection of the prevailing social conditions in Germany.

II. The criticism of the Young Hegelians

The meaning and purpose of the text “Die deutsche Ideologie” was to prove the reproach directed at the Young Hegelians that it had never occurred to them to relate German philosophy to German reality, that is, to criticize their own living environment or their material environment based on. This criticism is made clear by the following quote, which is significant for German ideology due to its strong polemics: “The first volume of this publication has the purpose of exposing these sheep, who consider themselves wolves, to show how they only the ideas of the German citizens philosophically bleating how the boasting of these philosophical interpreters only reflects the wretchedness of the real German situation ”(MEW 3, p. 13). The naivety assumed by the followers of the Young Hegelian worldview goes hand in hand with the main error of the German philosophers. According to Marx and Engels, the most serious fallacy in the Young Hegelian ideology is that they always start from phenomena of consciousness and substantiated predicates, such as the "spirit". Anyone who tries to understand reality from this point of view, that is, underpins his explanations and theories with ideologies and religion, makes himself - according to Marx and Engels - implausible. People like Bauer and Stirner did not pursue a useful philosophy that reflected the real conditions, but instead produced empty phrases. Last but not least, the Leipzig Council provided evidence of the abstract, unrealistic attitude of the Young Hegelians. Instead of discussing current, day-to-day political issues, the speakers lost themselves in a detached discussion about terms such as self-confidence, substance and individuality.

Ludwig Feuerbach is also caught in the crossfire of criticism. The allegedly “brave German philosopher” can explain people's ideas of their personal reality, again only with the help of appropriate intellectual products such as ideology, religion, philosophy and law. Marx and Engels use a broader negative connotation of “ideology”: ideological - and thus reprehensible - be it the above-described “intellectual products” to be regarded as independent, dynamic factors that determine social development. Anyone who argues like this literally turns the interrelationships between life, social life and consciousness upside down. Social development, as well as human consciousness, result from the historical view of Marx and Engels from the individual material existence of people.

Another essential critique by Marx and Engels concerning the Young Hegelians relates to the inability of the opinion-shaping philosophers in Germany in the middle of the 19th century to break away from Hegel's ideas. The central point of the accusation is that none of the Young Hegelians was able to develop a comprehensive criticism of the Hegelian system. Although every “prophet”, as Marx and Engels ironically call the German philosophers, claim to be beyond Hegel, their constructs of ideas were limited to highlighting partial aspects of the Hegelian system without any connection, in order to then counter them both against the whole system and against them To ask work of other Young Hegelians. For Marx and Engels, the basic prerequisite for a revolutionary criticism of the Hegelian system is a world of ideas related to existing reality, the roots of which are (largely) not based on Hegel.

The persistent refusal of the Young Hegelians to grapple with the real conditions makes them the “true conservatives” for Marx and Engels, despite their grandiose, “earth-shaking” phrases, as ironically noted in German ideology. In this context, it is fitting that Marx is convinced that there is no revolution that only takes place on a spiritual level or that it does not change anything in the actually existing living conditions.

It is therefore the rule of thought that Marx and Engels want to break through. However, the respect of the two for the volume of influence of the Young Hegelians is very low from the start, as they assume that the German philosophers are very divided and also lack a concept. Here is a final quote: "Let us teach them to swap these imaginations with thoughts that correspond to the nature of the human being, says one, to behave critically towards them, says the other, they get out of their mind, says the third, and- the existing reality will collapse ”(MEW 3, p. 13).

III. The image of man

Marx followed the polemical criticism of the Young Hegelians by presenting his own views. This representation begins with the description of his image of man.

First of all, it is stated that the Marxist image of man, in contrast to idealistic perspectives, is not based on an "idea" or a conception of God, but on prerequisites that can be established purely empirically. The starting point is therefore not abstract concepts, but the concrete person, the person as he shows himself in his economic and social activity. First of all, “the physical organization of these individuals and their relationship to the rest of nature” is considered.1 The questions on which the development of the Marxist image of man is based are: What is the physical constitution of a person? What is the relationship to nature that results from this? Since the essence of all other living beings is also determined by their physical composition and their relationship to nature, the question arises: What is the difference between humans and animals?

Animals simply avail themselves of what they find in nature to satisfy their needs (the most important need is food) and consume it as they find it. Man, on the other hand, is forced to have a modifying effect on nature in order to be able to satisfy his (constantly growing) needs, i.e. what nature offers him in a certain form is not enough for him, but he must first adapt what is found to his needs, he has to produce. In a way, human production represents a compensation for human physical imperfection, which makes it impossible for humans to consume what is found in nature in the way that nature has it ready.2

So humans and animals have in common that their essence is determined by their material living conditions. With humans, production, especially the way in which it is produced, is the most important component of material living conditions. A certain way of producing requires a certain way of living. The essence of man is therefore dependent on the essence of production, on the mode of production: "What the individuals are, then, depends on the material conditions of their production."3 This is not to be understood in such a way that nature itself has no influence on people, after all, the mode of production itself is determined by nature: “The way in which people produce their food depends first of all on the nature of what is found and what it is reproducing food itself. "4

The chapter dealt with in the “German Ideology” is entitled “Feuerbach - the contrast between materialistic and idealistic views”. This title suggests that Marx and Engels originally intended to directly and critically oppose materialism and idealism, and in doing so to particularly focus on Feuerbach. A substantive criticism of Feuerbach is hardly formulated in the entire text. Nonetheless, the differences between Marx's materialism and Feuerbach's still semi-metaphysical materialism are implicitly made clear.

In the “Theses on Feuerbach” Marx criticized Feuerbach for not taking into account the importance of human practice. Feuerbach describes reality only as an object to be looked at, without realizing that human practice is also an important part of reality: “Feuerbach is not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants the view; but he does not understand sensuality as a practical human-sensual activity. "5

In the text “Die Deutsche Ideologie” Marx then gives human practice the status it deserves in his opinion, in that production, i.e. concrete practical activity of people, is a fundamentally determining factor for people, for their consciousness and the course of human history , introduces.

IV. Division of labor

For Marx and Engels, the concept of production is indispensably linked to the completed division of labor. A progress in production technology goes hand in hand with the increasing division of labor, whereby its origin arose from the diversity of natural properties and circumstances as well as the needs of individuals.

The idea of ​​the division of labor outlined in the materialistic conception of history organizes society into classes and regulates the property relations of the citizens. One can observe the divisions between town and country and between agriculture and industry. Added to this are the conflicting human interests that are brought about by technical specializations within the production of goods and the rapidly increasing differentiation between manual work and intellectual work. In addition, Marx and Engels characterize the division of labor as an indicator of the stage of development of a nation in their work “Die deutsche Ideologie”. Economic relations between states and nations are based on the degree of development of the productive forces and the resulting expansion of the division of labor. The relationship between ownership and the division of labor is also discussed. Marx and Engels take the point of view that the current level of the productive forces not only influences the division of labor, but also regulates the social relations of people with regard to their material existence, that is, determines the conditions of their life. Concretely, according to the deterministic logic of Marx and Engels: division of labor, forced by the development of the productive forces, leads to an unequal change in property relations. The result is an extremely financially strong minority that exploits and oppresses the majority of the non-possessors. The division of labor is thus on the one hand the driving force of production or the economic development of a nation and on the other hand differentiated forms of work divide a society. The division of labor is ultimately responsible for a person's social reality. The historical materialism outlined by Marx and Engels sees the ultimate solution in the abolition of the division of labor.

V. Ownership

Marx and Engels justify this point of view of the connection between property relations and the division of labor with the history of property. They distinguish between three different phenomena, “tribal property”, “ancient communal and state property” and “feudal or class property”.

The first level of ownership is tribal ownership. The division of labor is traditionally structured as in a larger family. This most underdeveloped division of labor is primarily concerned with the satisfaction of primary needs through hunting, agriculture, fishing, animal husbandry or slavery. The social hierarchy is limited to the mostly patriarchal family. The problem with this form of division of labor is the high demand for natural resources. Therefore, this system would only be possible today in individual areas of land that are barely populated, but not in large cities.

The population acquired higher skills and knowledge over time. This led to changes in needs. This knowledge and the strong population growth made it possible, on the one hand, to achieve a greater division of labor, but on the other hand, it was also necessary because the natural resources of space for so many people have become scarcer. This required other ownership structures, namely ancient communal and state property. The people began to unite with multiple tribes to form individual cities. There, for the first time, private property, communal property and jointly protected private property are being created. Because the citizens could only secure their power over slaves in the community, for example. The differences between town and country, between craft and agriculture are slowly emerging.

As a special example of this level of property and the division of labor, Marx and Engels cite ancient Rome. Rome was relatively highly developed for its time, there was a functioning legal system e.g. for the protection of property and slavery was a collectively protected private property. The division of labor and the separation of commercial, intellectual activity from industrial, creative activity had advanced. Since Rome's wealth attracted a lot of envy, constant attacks, wars, looting and murders prevented it from progressing steadily in the division of labor. On the one hand, Rome was the center of prosperity, on the other hand, it strived for more and more lands and wealth. Since this system was based primarily on slavery and most of the private property was divided as a percentage between very few citizens, most people did not have a ragged proletariat6 out. Thus Rome no longer corresponded to its size and potential and could be destroyed by a basically underdeveloped barbarian people.

In contrast to antiquity, the third form of property no longer comes from the city, but from the country. Feudal or class property was formed as an equivalent to the guilds in the cities. There were no slaves as in ancient Rome, but the serfs had the same function. Armed followers secured the feudal lords power over the peasants as productive forces. It was especially during this period that the class society developed with the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the period in which Marx and Engels lived. The rural property here is distributed among a financially strong minority, while the working people struggle to survive on the edge of the subsistence level.

The fact is, therefore, that certain individuals who are productively active in a certain way enter into these certain social and political relationships.7

This change from the primitive society to the slave-holding society, then to feudalism and to modern-bourgeois society with the aim of a classless society can be most easily represented with a graphic. At the beginning one starts with the primitive society with tribal ownership. The relations of production, namely the form of the division of labor, initially remains constant, but the force of production changes continuously, so that ultimately the relations limit the theoretical possibilities.As soon as this antagonism reaches a certain size, there is a revolt, which leads to an overthrow of the previous level of ownership and division of labor. At the end of such a revolt there is a new form, after the primitive society, e.g. the

(Source: Kurzmann, Peter: Philosophie, dtv Atlas, 1991)

A society of slavery that corresponds to its actual potential, at least when it comes into being. Over time a similar antagonism develops again and after a revolt comes feudalism and then modern bourgeois society.

VI. Awareness

At the end of the text excerpt to be processed, the Marxist concept of consciousness is presented. Consciousness, i.e. spiritual life, is - like material life - a product of the social activity of people, whereby the activity of people is conditioned by the level of development of the productive forces, the degree of division of labor and property relations. It is not the human being as an abstract being that creates spirit and consciousness, but the active, producing, living human being. "Consciousness can never be anything other than conscious being, and the being of people is their real life process."8

Language plays a special role in the development of consciousness. Consciousness only really begins to exist when it is expressed in language and can be experienced by other people. That has two consequences. First, a consciousness that only exists in the form of language cannot be a “pure” consciousness that is not detached from matter, since language cannot be imagined without matter, since it uses matter as a medium, namely in the form of sound waves.

Second, consciousness understood in this way is always a social relationship, since language can only have the purpose of satisfying the individual's need for social intercourse with other people.

First of all, consciousness appears in its simplest form: “Of course, consciousness is first of all just consciousness about the next sensual environment and consciousness of the narrow-minded connection with other people and things apart from the individual who becomes conscious; At the same time, it is the consciousness of nature which at first confronts people as a thoroughly alien, omnipotent and unassailable power, to which people behave in a purely animalistic manner, by which they allow themselves to be impressed like cattle; and therefore purely animal consciousness of nature (natural religion). "9

If human consciousness is a result of the human process of life, then looking at history is not about analyzing what people of a particular epoch said, thought, imagined and imagined - in short, what the consciousness of a particular epoch was like but rather about analyzing the life process of people and only then mind and consciousness, understood as products ("reflexes and echoes"10 ) to examine this life process.

This also means: Any ideology (morality, religion, metaphysics) must be denied any form of independence. It does not go through any independent development and has no independent history. The development takes place in the material being of people, changes in consciousness and ideology can only be the result of material changes: "It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness."11

If the opposite is assumed by others, this can be explained as a result of the advanced division of labor, i.e. the separation of spiritual and material work. If spiritual and material activity are assigned to different people, the object of one activity also appears independent of that of the other, i.e. thinking appears to be unaffected by material being and has the appearance of independence. This also gives rise to the view that the spirit is the driving force in history and that history is primarily a series of theological, philosophical and ethical ideas.12

Predrag Vranicki takes the view that the thoughts on the relationship between thinking and being formulated in the “German Ideology” are “articulated more deeply and adequately than is the case with both [Marx and Engels] in their later works.” led many Marxists to the misunderstanding that consciousness was a pure image of reality, which resulted in a mechanical conception of the relationship between base and superstructure that divided this relationship in two. This misunderstanding would be dispelled by the fact emphasized in the “German Ideology” that reality itself is always only a social relationship.13


1 Marx / Engels: The German Ideology. In: MEW 3, p. 21

2 Fetscher, Iring: Marx. Freiburg 1999, p. 63

3 Marx / Engels: The German Ideology. In: MEW 3, p. 21

4 ibid.

5 Marx: Theses on Feuerbach. In: Karl Marx, Die Frühschriften, Stuttgart 1971, p. 340

6 Marx / Engels: The German Ideology. In: MEW 3, p. 23

7 Marx / Engels: The German Ideology. In: MEW 3, p. 24

8 Marx / Engels: The German Ideology. In: MEW 3, p. 26

9 ibid. p.31

10 ibid. p.26

11 ibid., p.27

12 Cornu, Auguste: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Berlin 1954-1968, Vol. 2, p. 221

13 Vranicki, Predrag: History of Marxism, Volume 1. Frankfurt a.M. 1983, p.126