Exploring Friedrich Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy: Part Four - Marx. By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
(Read Part 1 HERE, Part 2 HERE, and Part 3 HERE)
Engels begins this part by discussing the disintegration of Hegelian philosophy that set in shortly after Hegel’s death. Two basic schools grew out of Hegel’s thought— the Left Hegelians and the Right Hegelians. The Right Hegelians went down the road of conservative acceptance of the establishment and became reactionary upholders of the status quo, we have no need to discuss these philosophical losers.
The Left Hegelians became liberals and radical bourgeois thinkers. They did some progressive work in theology writing about religion as a subject to be studied outside of the supernatural framework of traditional belief. Only one of the Left Hegelians left any imprint behind in the field of philosophy and that was Feuerbach. We have seen above what Engels thought of the limitations of his materialism and its contamination with religious and moral arguments. Important as Feuerbach was, he was a pipsqueak compared to Hegel, the depth of whose philosophy he failed to grasp. Engels sums up Feuerbach thusly: “He could not cope with Hegel through criticism; he simply cast him aside as useless, while he himself, compared to the encyclopedic wealth of the Hegelian system, achieved nothing positive beyond a bombastic religion of love and a meagre, impotent morality.”
However, besides the Right and Left Hegelians there was a third philosophical development that came into existence and pointed out a viable philosophical future for a core set of beliefs that can benefit humanity and solve the social problems facing it. Engels writes “this tendency is essentially connected with the name of Marx.” At this point Engels inserts an important footnote that not only explains his relations to Marx by way of the new idea of scientific socialism and why it richly deserves to be named after him as “Marxism”.
This should calm down those so-called “Marxists” who wish to avoid using the term “Marxism” to opportunistically have a more public appeal. Here is an example from a would be ‘Scientific Socialist’ concerning the use of the term 'Marxism:’ “‘Marxism, Marxism-Leninism.’ Very bad idea to name a scientific world-view after individuals. Way too subjective and besides too many bad stories and nightmares associated with it. And, not very working-class sounding: too many syllables and hyphens. Replace it with ‘scientific socialism’ or the ‘socialist and communist idea.’” (Joe Sims, “Ten Best and Worst Ideas of Marxism”). We certainly don’t want to overwhelm working people with syllables and hyphens!
But Engels notes that this great new theory about the nature of socialism which he and Marx elaborated, the theory that explains the working of capitalism and the way the exploitation of humans by humans can finally be ended, is totally world changing— up there with the ideas of Darwin and Newton (Einstein now). And yes, he, Engels, helped develop this new world outlook, but it was Marx who really worked out the details and developed the major ideas of the theory. Engels helped but Marx could have done it alone and Engels could not have. “Without him,” Engels says, “the theory would not be by far what it is today. It thereby rightly bears his name.”
How anyone that came to be a follower of this theory yet maintains that Marx’s name, or his name conjoined with Lenin’s, is associated with “too many bad stories and nightmares’’ is a puzzlement — as only the capitalists, imperialists and other enemies of humanity should be having nightmares when they hear about Marxism. The comrades should be celebrating it.
But, just what did Marx do? He really established materialism as the philosophy of the left after Hegel’s philosophy became outmoded— a real materialism unlike the soft core materialism of Feuerbach. Marx’s materialism was dedicated to viewing the real world just as it presented itself to us free of idealistic prejudices. Engels and Marx “decided mercilessly to sacrifice every idealist quirk which could not be brought into harmony with the facts conceived in their own, and not in a fantastic, interconnection. And materialism means nothing more than this.”
But Hegel was not really outmoded, at least not completely. His idealistic explanations for the changes observed in history and science were discarded but NOT his method of analysis—i.e., his dialectical method of seeing the world as a process of change, development, and contradiction, rather than one of unchanging essences which only seem to be involved in such changes which are really reduced to never changing first essences.
For Hegel it all begins with the idea of the CONCEPT— there is just a given absolute first concept which contains in itself from eternity all the laws and principles, which Hegel lays out in his Science of Logic. Engels says this Concept is the “soul of the universe”. Hegel says it is “God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind.” The word “God” doesn’t mean what it means in any of the world’s great religions — it’s a Hegel thing. This Concept is all worked out like the rules of chess, only before there is any real material chess board or pieces that must move by these rules. In nature they become revealed as they develop as a result of the resolution of contradictions they engender.
The Concept, God, somehow “alienates itself” by coming into existence as Nature— it is not at this point self-conscious. It is like that singularity that became the Big Bang which contained the seeds of all the laws of nature and math, etc that exist in our universe. The Rules of Chess contain every possible move in every possible game now and for all future time— but the Rules of Chess are not self-conscious and neither is the Concept/God/Nature (yet). It becomes self-conscious when humans become self-conscious. Engels continues, “This self-consciousness then elaborates itself again in history from the crude form until finally the absolute concept (God) comes to itself completely in Hegelian philosophy.” History is the record of this trip and self-consciousness advances progressively through time to the modern world. This is an unfolding that human self-consciousness becomes aware of but it is independent of human self-consciousness which is just the mirror which reflects it.
Well, Engels says, “This ideological perversion had to be done away with.” Marxist materialism means we comprehend our mental concepts as “images of real things instead of regarding the real things as images of some or other stage of the absolute concept.” The great basic thought of Hegel was that that reality is not a stable fixed collection of things to be studied but a PROCESS “in which the apparently stable things, no less than their mental images in our heads, the concepts, go through uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which, for all apparent accidentality and despite all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end.”
If this materialist dialectic, the correction of Hegel by Marx, is correct, we should see the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a “temporary retrogression” and the resulting Russian Federation as a “progressive development.” OR we can see the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the birth of the Russian Federation and other post soviet states as an on going retrogression that will eventually rebound in a progressive resolution. The predictive value of Marxist philosophy, however, does not have a sterling track record. This view, of a coming necessary progressive rebound, has religious overtones that Engels would not appreciate.
Why two terms "Dialectical Materialism” and “Historical Materialism?” It is because the dialectic is different when applied to nature than to history. Dialectical Materialism is the overall name of the philosophy and Historical Materialism is a subdivision. The dialectic at work in nature reveals that “nothing happens as a consciously desired aim.” Sorry God, no divine plan just natura naturata. “In the history of society, on the contrary, the actors are all endowed with consciousness … nothing happens without a desired aim.”
Nevertheless, there are general laws of history at work, which is one of the reasons so many of our aims and plans either fail or backfire and the best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley. History looks like just chance events or as ’just one damn thing after another’ but, according to Engels, “wherever on the surface chance holds sway, it is always governed by inner hidden laws and these laws only have to be discovered.” This is the Marxist version of Adam Smith’s “the invisible hand” and Hegel’s “the cunning of reason” (die List der Vernunft).
By the time Engels was writing this work, the mid-late 19th century, the class struggle, the major motivating force behind historical development, had reached the point that in the most developed countries where, what had been a three way class struggle in Europe since the end of the Middle Ages for production and control of the economy between the class possessing agricultural production (the nobility) the capitalists (the bourgeoisie) who controlled the instruments of production involved in capital formation by means of industry and commerce, and the working people who owned no significant property beyond their bodies and ability to employ them in the service of others (the proletariat, both industrial and agricultural) had now boiled down to essentially a struggle between two of those classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; other classes and strata were insignificant and play only a supporting role to the two major contenders.
This struggle plays out in the political arena, but politics is only the reflection of economic interests— the economic struggle is the primary struggle. Control of the state is a political struggle. But, Engels says, “the state— the political order— is the subordinate factor and civil society— the realm of economic relations — the decisive element.” Hegel had it the other way around, another difference between Marxism and Hegelianism. If we really study modern conditions “we discover that in modern history the will of the state is, on the whole, determined by the changing needs of civil society, by the supremacy of this or that class, in the last resort, by the development of the productive forces and relations of exchange.”
The class struggle, in so far as it aims at realizing state power, takes the form of a political struggle. Politics involves ideological conflicts and it often happens that the participants lose contact consciously with the true economic foundations that underlie this struggle. In the West the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the nobility took the form of political struggle in the guise of religion, Catholicism versus Protestantism— this took the consciousness of the economic issues even further away from people’s awareness. Protestant Christianity was the vehicle by which the bourgeoisie ousted the feudal order from the control of the economic base of civil society.
Protestantism in its Calvinist form was especially triumphant. In the Enlightenment Catholicism was discredited and Protestantism opened the way to Freethinking, Deism and the rejection of Christianity by the intellectuals of the new bourgeois ruling class that came to power in the great French Revolution. Once in power, religion was domesticated and used by the new ruling class to control the masses. The pope today is just a sweet little old man who protects pedophiles and doesn’t want women to control their own reproductive organs. Protestant preachers are basically shills collecting money from their congregants (with few exceptions).
Religion is useful in some civil rights contexts to motivate progressive actions from populations cut off from effective political paths to control their own lives, but Engels concludes that we are in the final stage of Christianity [this applies to religion in general]. It has “become incapable of continuing to serve any progressive class as the ideological garb of its aspirations.” At this point in history the proper garb for the proletariat and working people in general (which make up the only progressive class under capitalism) is some form of Marxism (or Marxism-Leninism particularly) and, unfortunately, the reactionary bourgeoisie is in control of all the major political forces in the world, in one way or another, outside of a few bastions of Marxism that survived the implosion of the Soviet Union and its allied states.
With no really progressive role left for religion, and the end of classical German philosophy, as well as philosophy qua philosophy being replaced by science, we have arrived at a situation, as Jean Paul Sartre admitted, where Marxism is the only philosophy that can be utilized to explain today’s world and its possible progressive future. Engels concludes his book with the following: “The German working-class movement is the heir to German classical philosophy.” Well, the German working class hasn’t taken care of its inheritance but it can still live up to Engel’s expectations. Nowadays it’s the world working class that is heir to classical German philosophy, as well as to classical Chinese philosophy (esp. Confucianism), and to the materialist based philosophies of other cultural traditions (e.g. Lokayata/Cuarvaka in India and forms of Buddhism not inconsistent with modern science).
‘Nature Nurtured’ in Latin, frequently used in scholastic philosophy, and later, in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.