THE EGO AND THE ORIGINS OF HISTORICAL MATERIALISM

GERA

The dissolution of Left Hegelianism coincided with the early thinking of Marx who grew up among the ruins of their philosophy. Together with Stirner, Marx accepted the philosophical categories and problems of Hegelian thought. Placing Stirner among the many strands and mutations of Hegelian thought highlights his intellectual proximity to the thought of the young Marx.

Whilst preparing to demolish German Idealism, Marx entered the metaphysical fray at same moment as Stirner, and wrestled with the same ontological questions. The publication of The Ego shook the pro-Feuerbachian position Marx found himself in 1844 and perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Marx was to experience the depth and implications of Stirner’s criticism.
Marx had originally planned to write a review of The Ego; however he stalled whilst Bauer and Feuerbach fielded their responses. Then, feeling clearly personally provoked, Marx postponed previously commissioned works to pen «Sankt Max». After completing the work, Marx wavered and the criticism of Stirner remained unprinted. Within this privately led dispute,
The German Ideology contained the seeds of a new philosophy, created to be immune to a Stirnerian criticism: historical materialism. The birth of this radical new theory was muted. These ideas were left in a drawer along with «Sankt Max», whilst Marx, wishing to escape the idealist philosophy of the Left Hegelians, charged into political life, into intellectual feuds with Proundhon and Bakunin.
Between 1844 and 1846 Marx and Engels were busy forging their new revolutionary outlook. The German Ideology was composed in Brussels, where Marx had moved in 1845 following his deportation from Paris by the Guizot government who had been pressured by Prussia to expel the leading collaborators of Vorwärts. During the last three months of 1845, Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology. In early 1846, both men visited London in order to found a network of communist correspondence committees to provide German, French and English socialists with access to each other’s ideas and activities. The backdrop to Marx’ life was one of financial struggle, censorship and political activity and exile. However, the pair had integrated their theoretical and practical aims, revolutionary communist teaching and rallying the progressive elements of the proletariat and revolutionary intelligentsia.
In theoretical terms, this revolutionary outlook was partially created through the intellectual struggle with what Marx saw as bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideology of the Left Hegelians, of which Max Stirner was seen as the perfect embodiment. The German Ideology directed criticism against the many apparent failings of Left Hegelianism, many which echo Stirner’s own critique of the movement. For Marx, however, the authority of delusions or Stirner’s «spooks» over human minds was not a result of mental distortion cured by working upon the consciousness, but rather rooted in social conditions. For both Stirner and Marx, Left Hegelian humanism was governed by false ideas where men are enslaved to the creations of their minds. For Marx, the power of philosophy was to expose and destroy these false ideas and revolutionise society. In the Preface of The German Ideology Marx outlined his objections to the Left Hegelians, and saw clearly his task in:

«uncloaking these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves; of showing that their bleating merely imitates in a philosophic form the conceptions of the German middle class; that the boasting of these philosophic commentators only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions in Germany.»

Throughout The German Ideology Marx clearly enjoys making fun of the philosophical pretensions of the Left Hegelians, yet he also levels the serious claim that the movement’s achievements only embodied a corruption of Hegel, i.e. «the putrescence of the absolute spirit».
Why then compose such a lengthy rebuttal of German post-Hegelian philosophy if all it amounted to was «shadows of reality»?The answer is simple: Stirner. Marxists tend to regard The German Ideology as nothing more than a secondary attack against Left Hegelians, even an enlarged version of The Holy Family. However, The Ego had unsettled Marx, regardless of whether a public debate was to be had, he felt inclined to convince himself at least that Stirner was wrong. Marx realised that Stirner’s position was perfectly concordant with general development of post-Hegelian dialectics in German philosophy and thus an alternative to his profanization of the Hegel. In reading The Ego, Marx came to reject Feuerbachian humanism, of which he had previously thought highly, praising Feuerbach’s «brilliant arguments» in the Essence of Christianity and defending his «real humanism» in The Holy Family. Now revealed as a «pious atheist» by Stirner, Marx could not avoid denunciating Feuerbach, but equally had to avoid an association with the powerful Stirnerian position that had originally prompted the rejection.The German Ideology was less an attack, but more as an angry defence against the theologically inspired and passivist humanism of Feuerbach and the extreme voluntarism and subjectivist individualism of Stirner.
Marx’ familiarity with the aims of Left Hegelianism meant he agreed that the more progressive an idea was, the more it desecrated the quasi-religious status Hegel’s legacy. In The German Ideology Marx attempted to be more radical than both Bauer and Feuerbach in profaning the regions of Hegel’s thought which had been «transfigured». However whilst Marx believed that, like Stirner, he could fight against illusions and opiates, against religion, political ideals and eventually against Hegelian philosophy itself, he still retained a hidden «eschatological attitude» and «implicit revolutionary drive» underlying Hegelianism in mid-1840s.Unlike Marx, Stirner didn’t retain Hegel’s eschatology and regarded it as simply another «phantom» to be exorcised from the mind, one perhaps essential if Hegelian thought was to be overcome. Marx adhered to Hegel in so far as he chose not to abandon some form of philosophical reconciliation, though not of the speculative sort. For reconciliation to be attained in the material transformation of the real world, Marx would have to elaborate and expound one of his most controversial and debated theories: historical materialism.
Rather disingenuously the old Marx considered the birth of historical materialism as simply theoretical analysis eschewing from purely theoretical research.Unfortunately there was no comprehensive or detached study of «socioeconomic realities» that came to support Marx’ theory in 1845; instead he was motivated by his desire to defend the «passion and idealism» emanating from the dissolution of Hegel’s philosophy against Stirner’s noxious philosophy of «total disillusionment».Stirner, as a minority of commentators have observed, played a decisive role in motivating Marx’ socialist thought in this direction. The subjective origins of the «materialistic conception of history» reflected Marx’ attempt to show that «the putrescence of the absolute spirit» must not go as far as it does in The Ego, yet it was perfectly acceptable to be a Hegelian of «revolutionary» inspiration. It seems paradoxical to think that historical materialism, Marx’ great epistemological «break» could have emerged from the context described above. Stirner’s impact has been displaced. Regardless of the self-assured position Marx felt he had reached in The German Ideology with regard to the specific criticisms of Left Hegelians, the real gem of the work was clearly the materialist conception of history. For Marx, it provided an ingenious escape route from the all-too parochial problems of Left Hegelianism and German Idealist Philosophy, whilst it also served as a methodological prerequisite for a new political economy. In a letter to German publishers in Leske on August 1 1846, Marx pointed out that the publication of a polemical work against the German philosophers was necessary in order to «prepare readers for his point of view in this field of economic science». The German Ideology should therefore be seen chiefly as a polemical work; one that Marx felt sure would lift him up and away from the ontological squabbling of the Left Hegelians towards economics, historical analysis and socialism.

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For Marx, speculative philosophy had resulted in idealist self-deception epitomised in the work of the Left Hegelians. Marx frequently attacked the sterile and static nature of his milieu, stating «German critique has, right up to its latest efforts, never left the realm of philosophy».The movement’s ignorance of both of the need to specify an agent for revolutionary change and of the nature of social and historical explanation had meant their philosophy failed. Despite the decline of Left Hegelian humanism, Marx’ complaint was essentially methodological.The Left Hegelians, like Descartes, thought that the illusions of social life could be left behind if one takes the standpoint of «self-consciousness» , «species» or the «ego». For Marx, this was a truly insulated standpoint. However, Stirner too had attacked the Archimedean standpoint or standpoint «outside the world» in 1844: «This foreign standpoint is the world of mind, of ideas, thoughts, concepts, essences; it is heaven». In concordance with Marx, Stirner attacked the Left Hegelians with similar gusto, identifying the same weaknesses:

«Now nothing but mind rules in the world. An innumerable multitude of concepts buzz about in people’s heads, and what are those doing who endeavour to get further? They are negating these concepts to put new ones in their place!».Thus the confusion of concepts moves forward.»

 

In recognising the force of Stirner’s criticism and the implications for Left Hegelian modes of thought Marx had to be just as «hard-line» on idealism as Stirner had been. He had to adopt a position in which all ideas were divested of their independence and autonomy. For a moment at least, Marx was allied with Stirner’s heaven-storming nihilism, but only in order to escape it:

 

«Morality, religion, metaphysics».have no history, no development; but human beings, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this, their reality; also their thinking and the products of their thinking.»

Marx’ response, that the «material world» takes primacy over the ideal, consciousness or thought itself, was not merely a major development in terms of his thinking but was the «thermo-nuclear» antidote to Stirnerian egoism he desperately needed.
Hegel had maintained that the ideal determined the material; Marx’ supposed modernism was finding the Hegelian dialectic «standing on its head» and turning it «right side up again».Quite what Marx means is not readily apparent. He inverted the primacy of the ideal found in German Idealist, Hegelian and post-Hegelian philosophy by replacing it with an older form of materialism. The materialist conception of consciousness can be summed up Marx’ famous axiom «Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life» (1846). Marx’ paradigmatic shift invoked eighteenth-century materialism, which took matter as primary and regarded consciousness, thought and sensation as secondary. The French materialists of the eighteenth century provided Marx with the simple mechanical categories that constituted the terms in which the origin and history of man were to be explained. The «newness» of Marxian materialism, the idea of conceiving of matter dialectically, highlights Marx’ innate debt to Hegelian thought. Yet historical materialism was also a backwards step. Marx wanted to reassert the fundamental principle of eighteenth-century historical naturalism; that historical events have natural causes. Hegel had broken away from naturalism but had not demanded an autonomous history, «Marx went back on this demand and swept Hegel away; he subjected history to dominion by natural science which Hegel had freed it from».Thus Marx took a «retrograde step», which was simultaneously also prelude to an advance in terms of political economy.Despite cryptic statements such as «standing Hegel on his feet instead of his head», Marx’ «conjuring trick» essentially took over the idea, inherited from both Kant and Hegel, in which history culminated in the complete unity of man, the identification of existence with essence and the abolition of contingency in human life. For Marx, humanity was not doomed to contingency, as Stirner maintained.

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As his response to Stirner suggests, Marx’ theory had no real scientific basis, and its genesis appears in a somewhat dubious light. Whilst it allowed Marx to condemn the present world order in terms of the immanent laws of history itself; as a solution it was both «ingenious and disingenuous».stirner’s nihilism meant Marx had to defend the basic claim to seek meaning in an ideal, rather than giving up the whole conception of a salvation of man. Marx was of course keen to emphasise that he was not really pursuing an ideal at all; his presuppositions were «not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real presuppositions from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination».Marx saw them as empirical facts. Stirner, on the other hand claimed «I presuppose only myself – and since it is I who presuppose myself, I have no presuppositions».Marx painstakingly insists Stirner himself does have ideals and even his own morality. Yet, the materialistic reduction of ideals to historical necessities very closely resembles a stirnerian abandoning of ideals; nihilism was inherent in both positions. How can Marx’ thought retain its revolutionary aspect if economic patterns and laws thoroughly determine man’s historical existence? Yet far from relinquishing his revolutionary ideals, Marx believed he had succeeded in preserving by integrating them into real history. This was the core of both Marx’ defence against Stirner and the essence of the materialistic conception of history: the ideals pursued by the Left Hegelians were declared to be the «immanent telos of history itself».The Left Hegelian revolutionary force became an immanent law of objective history. In other words, Marx turned an ought into an is.
It has not been properly acknowledged just how much The Ego is responsible for pushing Marx into this epistemological corner. By attempting to incorporate ideals into actual history, Marx went as far as it is possible to rationalise the Left Hegelian revolutionary drive without abandoning the «basic Left Hegelian insight».Marx had reached an impossible dilemma, one which has haunted his more intelligent disciples until today. As such, Marx could no longer encourage action as he now predicted change; history did not depend upon man’s conscious intentions; it depended on what humans do. This seems incompatible with Marx’ dismissal of ideals and represents the basic ambiguity of his thought, a blind spot which he left for Marxists to excuse or explain. The contradictory nature of Marx’ position reflected how «almost against his will» Marx was forced into dismissal by Stirner.On the one hand we have Marx the determinist, who will later refer to laws and tendencies that work «with iron necessity towards inevitable results», on the other we have Marx the voluntarist, keen to incite the proletariat to rebellion. However, the materialist conception of history was, in itself, a change of consciousness, merely a new theory of reality and thus «recognition of the existing order by means of another interpretation».The real difference between Marx and the Left Hegelians was that instead of pretending to save the world by changing their ideas, Marx arrived at an idea that couldn’t be changed, a theory in which humanity saves itself, regardless of philosophical speculations.
Historical materialism was the result of an attempt to preserve the Left Hegelian humanist heritage in spite of Stirner’s challenge. Stirner’s exposure of quasi-religious basis of Man undermined the idiom developed by Marx in his pre-1845 writings. To escape the neo-Christian ethics of humanism it was not enough to simply discard the legitimacy of the humanist or socialist goal. In a totalitarian fashion, Marx divested all ideas of any «autonomous» role whatsoever.
Many commentators have argued that the doctrine of historical materialism provided Marx with his most powerful weapon against idealist philosophy. It did not – despite how much Marx may have convinced himself – deal sufficiently with Stirnerian thought. Like Marx, Stirner’s project was destructive. The Ego sought to simply abolish philosophy in general by affirming that it was all nonsense, summed in Stirner’s famous aphorisms «I have set my cause upon nothing» and «Nothing is more to me than myself».Stirner’s modernity resides in this progressive leap beyond Marx, beyond a revolutionary mentality which required «moral postulates» or an ought. For Stirner, uniqueness and creativity begin only when a person goes beyond social identity and roles. He had shocked Marx into revising the ethical and humanistic assumptions of a socialist agenda. At the same time Stirner indirectly contributed to the creation and evolution of the distinctive and classical «Marxist» doctrines.
In short, The Ego moved Marx from a passionately moral, even sentimental, commitment to communism as a humanitarian creed, to a sociological affirmation of communism as the historical outcome of objective economic forces. During the mid-1840s Marx and Engels saw themselves at a decisive stage in working out the philosophical principles of scientific communism or «the scientific world outlook of the revolurevolutionary proletariat».Marx must have been painfully aware, therefore, of the need to qualify his own action in theory. This crisis for Marx reached its height in 1845, when The German Ideology indicated Marx’ final abandonment of the speculative abstractions of Feuerbach and others; the very abstractions which had served as the metaphysical foundations of his socialism. The unresolved nature of Marx’ uncomfortable encounter with Stirner is also evident in the development of the materialist conception of history. Historical materialism’s more inconvenient implications and thus the spectre of The Ego haunted Marx; burdening him with the «self-defeating task of reconciling a «voluntarist movement» in an «economically determined historical process».
By revealing «the hollowness of slogans which appealed to humanity, country, or abstract freedom … » Stirner had «prepared the way for a realistic analysis of the issues these phrases were used to conceal».Despite Stirner’s nascent influence on the thought of the young Marx, Marx came to dominate the historical era, his solution to the crises of Hegelian ontology emerged as legitimate, whilst the history and intentionality of Stirner’s thought was «excluded» in a Foucauldian sense. However, as I have demonstrated by studying of the genesis of historical materialism, the impact of The Ego on the evolution of socialist thought was far from negligible.

 

 

 

 

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