Human Consciousness and the socialist transformation of the Political Economy: An essay. By: Tathagat SinghRead Now
Debates around the scope of human consciousness in the project of the socialist revolution continue to exert their influence in the discourse of modern political economy and philosophy. This essay is an attempt to shed light on the debate arguing against reductionist labelling of Marxist proletarian revolution as ‘technologically-deterministic’. The essay makes the analysis taking into account the writings of Marx and Engels. In section III we consider some modern revisions that have taken place in the materialist conception of Marxism from intellectuals like Sartre, Badiou, and Zizek.
"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." 
-The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx
The statement that "It is not the consciousness of people that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness' as written by Marx in the Preface of 'A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, advocates prima facie a materialist conception of history. It could be interpreted in the following manner "History is not the development of ideas but the development of Productive Forces" (Gurley).
The views that Marx and Engels characterized as materialistic and dialectical evolved in reaction against and simultaneously under the influence of Hegel's Idealism. In their youth, both Marx and Engels were greatly influenced by Hegel and Hegel remained a philosophical enemy and ally of whom they never lost sight (Wedberg).
Before understanding Marx's Materialism (which itself was developed as a support and a critique of Ludwig Feuerbach's  Materialist philosophy), it becomes imperative to discuss Idealism. Hegel believed that it is 'The Idea' and 'The Universal Spirit' change the course of history, hiding behind the backs of actors of change. That it is 'The Idea' that is predominantly present in all social relations and emerging from the Idea is how society is organized and disciplined. The basic premise of Idealism can be talked of in terms like 'first there comes the Idea, and then comes the matter.' According to Hegel, it is the consciousness of humans that determines their mode of existence (Pfeifer).
In response and as a reaction to this, German Materialist philosophers like Ludwig Feuerbach developed the philosophy of Materialism. Marx writes the following in 'The German Ideology in 1845:
"By producing their means of subsistence, men are indirectly producing their actual material life. 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. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process" 
Marx calls the material activities of men the language of real life, talking about it as the ultimate determining factor of consciousness. The real, objective matter independent of the existence of the subjects' minds determines the ideas of the human individual and the human collective. In other words, 'first comes matter and then come ideas'. Marx and Engels go a step further than Feuerbach to extend this materialist analysis into determining social relations and class structure. The existing forces of production, on which we would come to later, play the most integral, material part (at least in the last analysis) in developing the human consciousness of a particular epoch characterized by the presence of a certain specific force of production.
Furthermore, as Eduard Bernstein puts it, the aim is "to trace back all phenomena to the necessary movements of matter" (Pfeifer). The fact that Bernstein identifies these movements of matter as necessary highlights another key aspect of historical Materialism: the inevitability of social transformations resulting from transformations in the material forces of production. There is a pattern of regularity in the history of social development. Primary stimulus is the primary dialectical process between man and his material environment. Human activity is also part of the real objective world. It changes the objective world and adapts it to man's needs. The material world is thus an objective reality transformed in the social process of production. (Lange).
While developing his theory, in some sense, tilted towards the economic aspect of determination, Marx's theory remains firmly rooted in the philosophical premise of the epistemological realism of Materialism in contrast with the epistemological subjectivism of Idealism. The epistemological realism of materialist philosophy gives substantial leverage for Marx to assert that matter exists independently of the mind (Wedberg). Moreover, Materialism maintains that empirical reality is an all-encompassing reality. In a certain sense, the mind is relegated to a secondary agent in a causal relationship of social transformation, but even then, it does not become a passive object. This fact is also one of the primary differences between pre-Marx Materialism and Marxian Materialism.
Pre-Marx materialists like John Locke regarded the human sensation as passive, while under Marxian Materialism, both the subject and the object are in a constant state of mutual adaptation. Marxist Materialism's matter is not the wholly de-humanized matter of the atomists. The driving force for Marx is not just Matter but man's relationship to that matter (Russell). According to Marx, the human essence is no abstraction inherent in every individual. In its reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations. 
The materialist doctrine was not just limited to Philosophical analysis but also extended to natural sciences under Stalin's regime. For example, Trofim Lysenko rejected the Mendelian genetic theory of heredity and postulated that heredity was determined by the natural material environment, thus rejecting biological determinism and replacing it with materialistic determinism (Pfeifer). Some critics have pointed out that Lysenko's leap was instead revised Idealism.
Even Ideology, as Louis Althusser argues as a system of representations, is born out of the particular arrangement of material, social practices that exist at a given period in history . Thus we can claim that each ideology is sustained through a material set of practices. Feuerbach had written that as ideologies become more complex like religion, for example, then the causal determination becomes weaker, but the connection still exists. A particular set of material practices lead to the origination of an economic or religious ideology. If these material activities were to be changed beyond a certain threshold level, they might cause the collapse of the said ideological system. The transformation of these material practices becomes a necessary and sufficient condition (if we are to believe the direct causal relationship between the material base determining the Superstructure) to bring about an ideological and social change. Engels could be seen describing a similar argument in the following passage:
"From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch….." 
Thus, in economics, we will seek the implications of this analysis now.
Marx can be seen making a relationship in the following passage.
"My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary, they originate in the material conditions of life".
The legal relations and the political forms that Marx is talking about in this passage have been grouped in a specific fashion and called 'the superstructure', including social consciousness. This Superstructure is generally causally determined by the economic/material base of the forces of production and the relations of production in Orthodox Marxian Analyses. We will expand on these terms individually now.
The Economic base in a Marxian theory consists of broadly two components, the material forces of production and the relations of production.
The transformation of production's material forces is generally the ultimate first assertion in any social transformation. These forces of production include- The existing technology of production, the human talent, knowledge and the skill set required for production and the pre-existing material environment.
The other component of the economic base is called the 'Relations of Production. The Relations of Production consists of the social relations that get established within a particular society due to a particular set of material forces of production. The relations of production also constitute the class structure in the society, answering questions like who produces the surplus or the production, who owns it and who controls it. In a strict, orthodox reading of the Marxian theory, the causal/determinative relationship is considered a linear cause-effect relationship emerging out of the material forces of production, affecting the relations of production immediately and the social consciousness and the legal-political Superstructure that constitutes the Superstructure subsequently. Thus orthodox readings of Marxism can, in this fashion, explain the shaping of Ideology (in a universal sense) and ideologies through development in the material forces of production.
As far as the statement in question as posited by Marx goes, this social existence which is a direct derivative of the material environment and the material forces of production and exchange as the objective reality of 'man' has no value without the productive activities, shapes the consciousness which can be thought of as a personal entity at the apparently micro level and at the same time as a part of the social consciousness component of the Superstructure. For example, someone's concept of freedom in general and the person being free in particular is shaped by the existing material forces of production (Pfeifer).
"At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto, thus begins the era of Social Revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure".
After reading this text, it becomes essential to understand that even the possibility of a social revolution, according to Marx, emerges primarily not arbitrarily from the minds of actors willing to cause this social revolution but initially from the changes in the material forces of production. However, again, one must not forget that, unlike Locke's Materialism, Marx's Materialism strongly proposes that the human mind is not a passive receptor of the stimulus but also an active reactor to the stimulus in a continuously engaging dialectical process. As Engels wrote in his letter to the German economist Borgias:
"Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic position is the cause and alone active, while everything else only has a passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of the economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself" .
Moreover, in the same letter, he writes how the concept of 'ultimate assertion' manifested through necessity is different from what critics pointed out as the "only assertion" of material forces of production:
"Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will or according to a collective plan or even in a definitely defined, given society. Their efforts clash, and for that very reason, all such societies are governed by necessity, which is supplemented by and appears under the forms of accident. The necessity which here asserts itself amidst all accident is again ultimately economic necessity."
As these material changes in the structure of production and exchange shape and transform the society from one system to another, they simultaneously give birth to contradictions which inevitably lead to the fall of the entire system itself. As explained by Marx and Engels, this existence of contradictions is an essential aspect of Dialectical thought (influenced by Hegel), which they use in the materialist framework to argue for the self-contained seeds of destruction under Capitalism.
As Engel writes in 1880:
"The greater the mastery obtained by the new mode of production over all important fields of production and in all manufacturing countries, the more it reduced individual production to an insignificant residuum, the more clearly was brought out the incompatibility of socialized production with capitalistic appropriation."
It is interesting to note that even the origins of the contradiction, according to this passage, arise from the mastery of the material modes of production. Thus, even the contradiction present in the Capitalist System in its entirety is produced by the control and ownership of the material modes of production and not because of the presence of some ideological notion in the collective mind of the society. In this way, Engels does his bit to make Marxism a materialist science.
Marx and Engels were devoted to using this materialist framework to develop an approach to understand and theorize the development of history. Furthermore, more simply, it can be said that they theorized the development of history as a movement of matter and not as a movement of ideas or the Universal Spirit (as advocated by Hegel).
Interesting nuances arose when contemporaries of Marx and Engels challenged them with questions which were apparently not seen to be economic, such as the question of races and the development of history, which supposedly moved in tandem with the exploitation of one race at the hands of another race by seemingly purely ideological and human consciousness-determined frameworks which were seen to be free of the economic domain. However, even this critique is handled by Engels in his letter to Borgius where he writes- "We regard economic conditions as the factor which ultimately determines historical development. But race is itself an economic factor". Using the materialist tool of analysis it becomes relatively clearer to see how Engels wanted to explain race itself as an economic factor.
It can be understood that a certain specific way of material practices originated and was sustained by the dominant class to continue the rampant racial exploitation. Under Capitalism, the aims for racial slavery became purely profit-driven, which is again an example of the material existence of monetary profit shaping the consciousness of the oppressor to impose this same fictitious consciousness on the exploited races further forcefully. If those particular sets of material practices were dismantled or replaced with another set of practices, then it becomes plausible to challenge the existence and legitimization of racism and slavery.
A similar analysis can be extended to the case of social castes within Hinduism in the Indian context, where the Savarna Class has deployed a particular set of material practices to create, sustain, and perpetuate a certain kind of false consciousness a fictitious hierarchy among the population. This is so because it seems plausible that seeing the same kind of oppression without those very objectively actual material actions of exploitation in the sphere of production and exchange would have been difficult.
It can be said that the dialectic nature of Marxist Materialism allows a certain kind of an encompassing characteristic of the Class structure born out of the pre-existing material modes of production and materially determined social existence, which encompasses caste, race, gender and religion, while not eclipsing them by allowing room for intersectionality but also at the same time being the primary assertive determinant, at least in the last analysis.
Even Marxism uses the same analysis to explain its rise. According to Marxist theory, two opposing ideologies can exist at the same time precisely because of the presence of dialectics in a society, one is the thesis, and the other is the antithesis and their union resulting in a synthesis. Thus the presence of the Bourgeois material class simultaneously allowed for the presence of a Proletarian social class which led to the development of a Marxist consciousness as a form of an expression of the philosophy of the proletarian struggle. The ultimate derivation comes from the Relations of Production, which is a class relation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariats based on the ownership of the material forces of production.
"The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated."
- Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach
One of the biggest fallacies that the readers and critics of Marxist Materialism have committed is to label it in a very reductionist fashion as a strongly 'suffocating' deterministic theory. According to these critics, Marxian Materialism leaves minimal scope for the human consciousness to be an active participant in the process of social revolution. These 'accusations' seem to wither away in the dialectical nature of the argument, as well as the discussion of the 'human essence' and 'alienation' in the early writings of Marx.
As people change the world, they develop their own capabilities and their desires to change the world still further. Such development is not imposed on us from the outside, nor do we simply adapt in passive ways to these changes. We initiate those changes and make ourselves worthy of the new conditions (Gurley). Therefore, it is incorrect and highly reductionist to label the Marxian theory as 'technologically deterministic' because human beings are integral to development.
A similar argument is made in Engel's response to J.Bloch
"According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this, neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the Superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these, the economic ones are ultimately decisive. However, the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one."
Ethical/Political connotations can be spotted in Marx's writings when he tries to bring Marxism closer to humanism. One of the critical methods of doing this is to do away with the abstraction of the 'idea' and the 'super-world' and bring 'man' to the centre of the material universe to be responsible for ethics and politics directly.
However, many later Marxist philosophers tried to do away with the rigid determinism of Marxist Materialism and tackled it with a different kind of Materialism while also rejecting humanism. Some of these philosophers included Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. Their new brand of Materialism sees itself in direct conflict with the standard dichotomous Idealism/Materialism debate. This new Materialism focuses less on the deterministic nature of matter and more on the foundationally indeterminate nature of matter (Pfeifer). In this new Materialism, what becomes primary is not material determination, which is an outcome, but rather material contingency and chance. The new Materialism thus involves in a certain way a more significant role of the human consciousness in the process of social transformation by positing that the existing material structure is not something monolithic but is made upon how the human consciousness responds to the primary cause of material contingency. Thus is, this material structure becomes unstable, reversible and constantly subjected to change since the human consciousness changes its reaction to changing material contingencies.
Althusser makes this point clearer even in his analyses on Materialist Theatre. He writes:
"The disappearance of the hero (whether positive or negative), the object of identification, has been seen as the very precondition of the alienation-effect -no more hero, no more identification – the suppression of the hero being also linked to Brecht's 'materialist' conception – it is the masses who make history, not 'heroes' .
In order to allow room for a more significant role of the human consciousness in social changes and transformation, some Marxist philosophers turned towards existentialism to give birth to a new strand of thought called Existential Marxism, most notable among them being Jean-Paul Sartre.
Jean-Paul Sartre wanted his existentialism to be a counterargument to Stalinist Materialism. Sartre deftly used Marx's writings on alienation and combined it with his writings in 'Being and Nothingness' to come about to a viewpoint of Existential Marxism. He wanted to substitute the determinism that was prevalent in the Stalinist Soviet-Marxism with the human impulse of freedom, constant change and radical social transformation through the agency of human choice. His primary purpose was to put the concept of freedom as pivotal to any social revolution. Sartre's reading of Marx led him to conclude that even Marx believed that Human Actions were fundamentally self-determining even when they took place in circumstances beyond the control of 'man'. Thus Sartre accused that the creeping in of determinism into Marxist Materialism was a Stalinist distortion. However, many critics of Sartre have pointed out that his tendency towards revisionism coloured the decrying of pre-Khrushchev Soviet Political Economy as deterministic.
Also, Sartre promptly refuted the one-way causal deterministic relationship of the economic base and the Superstructure. He argued that while there was undoubtedly a connecting relation and a dialectical conflict between the material forces of production, relations of production and the Superstructure, the one-way linearity seemed to him a far stretch of orthodox determinism. He believed that history is made by human beings even if the future is constrained because freedom for Sartre had no meaning outside of concrete oppressive situations. He made clear through his writings that even in limiting and oppressive structures, humans totalize and transcend. Another hallmark of existential thought posits that people should take responsibility for their actions and consequences. This particular stream of thought is thus adapted into Marxism by allowing the possibility of a continual struggle against the oppressive structures that limit humans and alienate them. Existentialist Marxism also emphasizes the importance of collectively self-determined will in increasing the alienation and insignificance of the individual. This shows how labelling Marxism as deterministic is reductionist and defeats the whole purpose of Marxism as a hope for social revolution.
Thus, it becomes safer to say that human consciousness does indeed play a part in social transformations even in Marxian readings as Sartre argued- "We are situated but never wholly determined".
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Tathagat Singh is a master’s research scholar in the Faculty of Economics of South Asian University, Delhi, India.
3/28/2022 09:52:02 am
Tathagat has synthesised this article in a way that even new students of Marxist literature can understand it in one go. We need more writers like him.
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