What does Marx mean "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness"?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As with all philosophers, the definition of human consciousness is of critical importance to Marx.  Consciousness is how a human being defines themselves.  Marx borrows from his teacher, Hegel, who argued that consciousness is a constant process called the dialectic between oppositions (thesis and antithesis).  For Marx, this process is an economic one, between those with money and power and those deprived of it.  This economic determinism defines history, struggle, and human consciousness.

For Marx, individual consciousness is something that cannot be divorced from one's class or social- economic group.  Marx claims that all of history can be seen as a class struggle predicated on owning wealth.  As a result, the consciousness of men (people) is actually the consciousness of their social grouping.  Where a person is in the social- economic distinction defines how they see themselves, their nature of consciousness of self.  A person who is born in the lowest of classes, according to Marx, will experience a consciousness that is closer to those of similar class distinction to them, as opposed to someone of a different, presumably higher, class.  Thus, it is not an individualized and isolated consciousness of men that determines their existence and sense of self, but a social existence based on socio- economic reality that defines their consciousness, or sense of self.  For Marx, history is an unfolding of this dialectic between those groups that have wealth and those who don't.

epostenmin | Student

said in a different way:
it is not what we think that decides our reality. It is rather our reality that decides what we are capable of thinking.

marx tries to say: you can't wish yourself out of your reality. this is a comment on religion and other forms of philosophical idealism. idealism claims something is wrong with how you are thinking. let's say a mullah/priest could says you have to believe in mohammed or jesus in order to improve your situation. marx disagrees with this. marx is encourageing to do something about your situation - instead of wishing it was different. if you want ice-cream - get the freaking ice-cream, instead of thinking or praying about it.

econdly he claims that our perceived reality sets the boundaries for what we are able to think. have you ever thought about why aliens in movies always are a mashup of things here on earth? in "men in black" some aliens were giant cockroaches. they are always mashups of things seen on earth. same with star wars and everything, really. try to imagine something you have never seen before in any form. hard, right?

the use of "determine", should not be read as a determinism, which is a process on rails. (for more: check out dialectical materialism).

novack880 | Student

Daniel Novack


SOSC 1800 6.0 A

Dr Frank Scherer

February 28

Social Constructs and the Individual child

The development of a child into a contributing member of society is an astronomically complicated process. Not only do nature and nurture play a role in this process but the very systems and institutions themselves.  Some people are born with an innate advantage over others, whether it is natural intellect, strength, looks, money etc. Various social institutions can shape a child through means of socialization; the family, the educational system, the governmental system and the media (or propaganda) all can play important roles in a child’s development. Norms and ideals taught to one group of children may be entirely different than those taught to another set of children from a different culture. We can also look at the advantages that members of the upper class can hold over the lower and middle class. Those from the upper class can unfairly have more resources to training whether it is athletic or academic. In order to truly understand how an individual child develops and is integrated into society, we must understand the constructs of the society in which that child was raised. The division of class brought upon by these systems holds a profound effect on a child’s consciousness and development into the individual. By critically analyzing the theories of Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim, we can explain the way in which these systems effect the development of the individual child. Similar to the enlightenment the works will be investigated in order to find the strongest ideas that can win out over the others.  

When looking at how a child evolves, we must delve into the political systems and social construction of reality that the child is thrust into. Why it that some children have no place to live and are hungry? Why do some children live in mansions with fifty unused rooms? Should these empty rooms be given to people who have nowhere to sleep? All these problems can be identified though one political construction: capitalism. However, despite these problems capitalism is an idea that has been proven and stood the test of time. Marx’s ideas have stood the test of time; however the ideal that Marx set out to accomplish is an impossible one to obtain. With Marx’s ideas the child would not be starving, he would have food and communal shelter. However, it is useful to note that Marx’s ideas and communism are different; this difference is due to the fact of human corruption (Marx’s writings in theory were great). “Marx argued that the whole of human history should be interpreted as an ongoing conflict between two main social groups” (Lee). If we look at medieval times and a noble who owned the land over his peasants, regardless of the noble’s intelligence or ability he holds a powerful advantage over the peasants and the peasant’s children. “Marx insisted that what objectively distinguished exploiters from the exploited were one thing and one thing only whether or not they owned the means of production” (Lee). So how can this effect a child? Regardless of a child’s ability it has very little to do with ones social position. If we look at the education or incomes of various urban areas or ghettos we can see that simply being born into a certain area code can put an individual at huge disadvantage in life. “Marx also insisted that consciousness changes as the organization of productive forces and relations develop” (Wertsch). As all philosophers, the definition of human consciousness was of great importance to Marx. Marx got his basis from his teacher Hegel, who argued that consciousness was a constant process or the dialectic process between oppositions.  To Marx this concept was an economic one between those with money and power and those deprived of it.  Marx believed this conflict theory or economic determinism defined human consciousness, history, and struggle.  To Marx, an individual’s consciousness can’t be separated from that person’s class or socioeconomic group. Marx discusses that all history can be seen as a class war with the sole purpose of obtaining wealth. Therefore, the consciousness of a man or child is that of their social grouping. Where an individual ranks in the social economic ladder greatly impacts the individual’s nature and concept of self.  A person who is born into the lower class will experience a consciousness more similar to another of the same class.  Therefore one could argue that it is not an individualized or isolated consciousness of an individual that determines their sense of self, but it is a social construct or existence based on that person’s socio economic reality. The point is that it’s not our thought that decides our reality; it is our reality that dictates what we are capable of thinking. Connecting to Durkheim, Marx similarly opposed religion and believed the individual should go out and get what they want rather than pray for it. Durkheim expresses that “In a highly role differentiated society, most individuals would arrive at a social position not through some objective test of their aptitudes and abilities, but through a social mechanism.”(Lee). Durkheim was a scientific thinker who saw the child as a weak puny being yet to evolve into an independent being. Durkheim was classified as a functionalist theorist and his focus was on social evolution. He spoke about groups and their aptitude to survive without a strong government or controlling institution. “There is no political reason which can excuse an attack upon the individual when the rights of the individual are above those of the state. If then, individualism is in and of itself, the catalyst of moral dissolution; we should see it here and manifest its anti social essence”(Durkheim).  One institution of great importance to the development of the child or individual is religion. A child is affected in a profound way by the religious institution he or she was born into.  Whilst religion bestows upon the individual child a sense of morality and faith it can also separate and divide individuals.  A child is not given the choice of his religion he or she instead takes on the norms and ideals of his parents. The parents are a construct as well and many of their mannerisms can shape the child into the future individual.  Durkheim speaks and delves into the very concept of religion in many of his works. He expresses that; “sociological theory emphasized two ideas: first, religions had the important social functions of promoting group solidarity and cooperation; second religious beliefs were ultimately founded on reverence for a reality which did exist, the reality of human society. Although he did not believe in the existence of gods, spirits, or totemic ancestors, Durkheim paradoxically wrote that all religions were true because of their foundations in social reality” (Magill). Simply put Durkheim thought of religion as existing for the positive and society driven goals it accomplishes. The human simply cannot exist alone or isolated, and societies continue to move forward and exist even after the demise of the individual. These societies are a collective effort, which takes the effort of all the individuals into a greater force or construct, and the various rules and laws employed by these societies hold a great importance to the development of our children. We can even see religion itself as a clan and that the symbol or totem is similar to that of the flags of the different countries. Essentially, a country can be seen as just a large clan each with their own unique laws, religions, and constructs. To Durkheim “everything human above the level of the manifestly physical or biological begins and ends in society” (Nisbet). On the other hand, when speaking of isolation we can note the effects of isolation literally as well and the deprived human rights on the psyche of a young child. If a child is locked in a closet or a dark space at say age two or three this can have a drastic effect on that person’s psyche. However, if we delve further into Freud’s psychological theories it is revealed that the bigger picture or collective conscience is more important. It is of great importance to note that Durkheim himself was a psychological thinker, and that his sociology was based on the collective psychology of society itself. Furthermore the importance and effect of various constructs and the social construction of reality on the development of the child into the individual will be explored.

Marx had a unique view of society; he believed the way a society was organized was determined by economic production. As discussed the class struggle was a reoccurring point in Marx’s philosophy that originated with changes in the economic base that drastically changed the relationship between social classes into the proletariat and bourgeoisie. The proletariat or the ones who became alienated from control over the means of production were forced to sell their labor and work to survive. This is why the nobility/hegemonic power or sociological distinction between classes was incredibly important to an individual or child being born. As discussed earlier a child born into one of the two classes could have their very reality or consciousness predetermined. The son of a noble would grow up with various advantages and a child born from a family or generation of factory workers could be alienated and usurped of their innate potential. “Consciousness is therefore from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all. Consciousness is at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment and consciousness of the limited connection with other persons and things outside the individual who is growing self conscious at this point man is only distinguished from sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is the conscious one.”(Connolly). Marx’s philosophy also argued that the very logic of capitalism would lead to the destruction of the bourgeoisie. This ongoing class war that characterized capitalism meant the bourgeoisie would need to use technology, new modes of social relations, and techniques that would go on to alienate the workers from the very value of the physical labor they produced, and would push even more middle class people into the confines of the proletariat. Marx insisted in his work Das Kapital that eventually the proletariat could become so large, alienated, and poor that eventually it would rise against the bourgeoisie. Marx insisted that the proletariat would rise or rebel in order to seize control over the means of production. In order to avoid this conflict Marx would go on to suggest the political system of communism in order to avoid a classless society. Marx hoped to rid society of the social injustice of the class system, however simply put theory and manifestations of his ideas differ greatly. (One could even look to the satire of Animal Farm an Orwellian piece of literature. At the beginning of the novel it is written on the barn all animals are equal, by the end of the novel it is written all animals are equal but some are more equal then others). The alienation of people as mentioned earlier as well as the construct of the family is an important factor that must be taken into account in a child’s development. “With the division of labor, in which all these contradictions are implicit, and which in its turn is based on the natural division of labor in the family and the separation of society into individual families opposed to one another, is given simultaneously the distribution, and indeed the unequal distribution (both quantitative and qualitative), of labor and its products, hence property: the nucleus, the first form, of which lies in the family, where wife and children are the slaves of the husband.”(Connolly). This latent slavery of the family can be identified as the first stage in disposing of the labor power of others. The division of labor and owning of private property are one in the same. Alienation was a very important theme of Marx, for example he speaks about how workers can become alienated through their labor for ex; a worker in the factory who spends his days working on just one part of a machine rather then the whole product can become unhappy and eventually alienated. Marx expressed the need for all people to have their economic needs supplied. Another important aspect to Marx was having each individual doing work that can bring about emotional satisfaction from the labor and for these workers to own the means of production as well as an emotional connection to the work. In the past having children work in factories was common. If a child is thrust into a system of hegemonic dominance and forced day in and day out to do mindless labor he/she can become alienated.  A child who has worked for the bourgeoisie, with unjust pay, unjust working hours, and unjust treatment can greatly have his/her own consciousness altered. This alienation can lead to various physical and mental problems.  If someone endures years of monotonous physically demanding work with a lack of stimuli it can cause changes in a person. Chronic stress has been known to alter a person’s brain specifically in the hippocampus. It is of great importance to note the causation of psychological effects and physical affects that this type of labor can have on a child worker. Whether a child is crippled physically through this work or his psyche is altered this is a very important connection to Marx in regards to the development of a child or person into society. “The parade of Manchester children who used their banners to call for an end to industrial murders also presented a written memorial to the commissioners, challenging them to use their bodies: “indeed, we tell you no lies, when we say that our bodies are wasted, and our strength sinking under our daily tasks look at us, and say if it is possible that we can be disbelieved” (Factory). The use of children in factories was more so common and the owners believed that if the children were given time off that the whole machine could fall apart. “The hours that children worked could not be limited without decreasing the hours of adults since younger workers were required to assist adults and to clean machinery”. “The child was actually part of the machine,” said one factory owner. Workers wages would fall if their hours were cut”(Factory). We can see the connection between Marx’s ideals and the suffering of the factory children; this is why Marx’s writings were powerful as many could identify with the pain of monotonous and damaging labor. The systematic enforcement of this type of labor onto the people simply due to which socio economic class that person was born into can unjustly damage the individual who had no control over where he/she was born. As mentioned earlier both theorists have their views on religion as well. Marx had a view of religion as the opiate of the masses. More so he expressed that religion was a tool to nullify the people.  He expresses that religion was just another method for the bourgeoisie to keep the working people subjugated happy and quiet. Marx looked to find materialist and economic basis for all of human behavior. “Indeed, religion is also, in the deepest sense of the word, the opium of the people, their consultation, a pain killer alleviating human suffering”(Nowak). Durkheim on the other hand looked to social relationships, human behaviors, and he was a more psychological thinker (in contrast to Marx relating institutions/behaviors to means of production). Durkheim believed one could better understand institutions such as religion by analyzing the social organizations from which it emerged and looking for social relationships. Durkheim also looked at the correlation between the individual and society as simply put an individual could not exist alone. He believed conflict originated from differences between individual imperatives and those of society. “ A religion, he writes is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them (Fenton)”.  Durkheim was a scientific thinker who personally was not a theist. He thought of religion as a necessary institution to unite people, provide morals and beneficial values to a society. “.  Durkheim also sought to understand human social relationships in nature without a controlling force. To conclude to truly understand how an individual child develops and is integrated into society, we must understand the constructs of the society in which that child was raised. The division of class brought upon by these systems holds a profound effect on a child’s consciousness and development into the individual. The integration of a child and transformation from a helpless being to a contributing member of society is greatly effected by the constructs mentioned. Many complex factors can affect an individual in his/her development and growth.

Bibliography APA 6th edition

Durkheim, Émile. On Morality and Society: Selected Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. Print.

Lee, Nick. Childhood and Human Value: Development, Separation and Separability. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2005.

Wertsch, James V. Culture Communication, and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Print.

Magill, Frank N. Masterplots Ii. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Salem Press, 1989. Print.

Nisbet, Robert. Émile Durkheim: With Selected Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1965. Print.

Connolly, W. E., & Gordon, G. (1974). Social structure and political theory. Lexington, Mass: Heath.

Factory lives: Four nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies. (2007). Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press.

Panasiuk, R., & Nowak, L. (1998). Marx's theories today. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Fenton, S. (1984). Durkheim and modern sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.