Notes on “The German Ideology”

Marx is moving away from questions of rights and philosophy to the study of political economy and capitalism.

The book has both a political and a philosophical dimension. First, Marx and Engels are railing against German Idealism’s view that consciousness creates the world, that consciousness has an independent existence, and that ideas have instantiations in the world, a view that sees the history of ideas as giving us a history of the world. Ideas, therefore, for the Young Hegelians, would change the world. At the time, they saw German politics as reproducing this notion of ideas changing the world, rather than attacking the conditions that produce the problems in the first place.

They want to explain why you get Idealist philosophy when you have a particular state and society. How and why Idealism as a way of conceiving politics and history emerges from liberal capitalist, bourgeois society. They want to offer a material explanation for why Idealism prevails in their age. In doing so, they have to begin working harder on what they understand by “Materialism.” The connection of German Philosophy with German existence: the relationship of German criticism to its material surroundings. Marx thus tries to explain how to be a materialist.

“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way” (42). Let’s not begin with ideas about men, or make presuppositions about them, let’s begin with men, their real lives and their real actions. The importance of introducing human practice cannot be overstated.

The mode of production determines much more than simply how we reproduce our existence; it’s first of all, historically and geographically situated; these material conditions determine our social relations; it even determines our sense of ourselves and, what’s more, what we in fact are—our human nature (cf. p. 42). This puts humans at the very center of history, and since we are historically situated and inherit past historical conditions, we don’t individually make our history as we choose. We are the product of history and of how we reproduce ourselves. Human nature is entirely contingent on the mode of production, which produces our historical being; a change in our mode of production is a change of our very being. Nations and their inter-relations are similarly shaped by these modes of production—the level of development, globally and internally. Nonetheless, these are made independent of our will (46-47). It’s a paradox of history and of how social change does happen that history has happened largely independent of our will, or at least not “in conditions of our own choosing,” but this needs to be changed (and can), Marx would argue. Again, his line about how we make history, but not in conditions of our choosing.

Consciousness and ideas emerge from the mode of production, but they don’t do so in an unmediated or straight-forward way. Our consciousness reflects our existence and mode of production, but we don’t always have an accurate picture of that mode of production. Our flaw is that we view our existence ideologically; we view it upside-down, a very specific distortion of the reality of material conditions that legitimates the dominant group/regime of domination. Why do we have ideology? Why do ideas emerge that mystify these conditions? Why is critique necessary?

His study centers on:

1. The Production of subsistence, mode of production

2. The emergence of classes through division of labor, physical vs mental labor

3. The relation of the state, ideology, religion, family to the development of classes

4. The notion of contradiction as the force of history.

It’s not that economy determines everything else; rather that human history cannot be understood without attention to the mode of production, which gives it shape. Materialism is NOT economic determinism, the economic is a conditioning force. (Sayer would tell us that Marx, in fact, redefined what “the economic” actually is, what it entails.) How then do we account for ideology?

1. The production of means for satisfying material life itself (48): making a world, and the world that others will enter through the production of the means to satisfy our material needs (tools, agriculture, etc.).

2. Satisfying needs, from here emerges the need for new needs, which is potentially infinite. Needs create new needs, and thus their proliferation. Needs are not just given, they are produced (historically, too) and are therefore expandable through the mode of production.

3.  Family

4. Social relations and the mode of production as history through the materialist conception of history—the break with Hegelian Idealism.

The division of labor between physical and mental labor: 1. creates a vantage point from which mental labor separates and becomes elevated to a higher value. Aristotle’s Greece required the work of slaves and laborers, who were not members of the polis, and those who were free of that necessity for labor represent the real and higher aims of human society (or that’s how Aristotle saw it). 2. Consciousness of the mental labor flatters itself of its independence from the material world and banal reality—they are priests and philosophers, bosses, people of leisure. Ideas are perceived as having emancipated themselves from the world, as universal, general, free from the world, floating, truths, an autonomous sphere—an illusion. 3. This division corresponds to a division between ruled and ruler, class and ruling class; their upside-down ideas of the world, become the ruling ideas of the age.

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance” (64).

With the growing size and power of a class, the ideas themselves become much more general and abstract than those of the class that came before. The emergence of liberal, constitutional states, corresponds to the German Idealist idea of the state as the ultimate expression of freedom; in camera obscura it makes the state rather than civil society the objectification of freedom (individual, self-interest). German idealism is a crucial part of the liberal state, because the state expresses ideas that would make this actually true, but Marx shows how through a materialist conception freedom is actually being constrained. The Rights of Man actually justifies and obscures the actual material relations of capitalism’s emergence. The state assures bourgeois freedom: property, etc. and enshrines these in the state itself.

The emergence of every new dominant class, is a revolutionary emergence. The one class includes more people, and is forced to act and say that it represents increasingly broader sectors. The new dominant class will always put forward its ideas as representing the whole of society and achieves its hegemony on a broader basis than the one that came before, which is why they need to be increasingly abstract and general.

This entry was posted in Historical Materialism, Karl Marx, Marxism, Political Economy, The State. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Notes on “The German Ideology”

  1. Erin says:

    This is great. Thanks for making Marx a bit easier to comprehend.

Comments are closed.