Productivity and History

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

Marx’s strategy of situating types of property relations within larger and more comprehensive types of productive relations (first used in 1844), when combined with the judgment that humanity’s productive activity is the most central aspect of human experience, suggests a larger project still: redoing Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s accounts of the historical development of humankind toward full self and mutual recognition on the basis of these presuppositions. Against Hegel, Marx stresses that successive types of consciousness do not unfold out of their own conceptual resources, but rather on the basis of changes in humanity’s socially mediated interchange with the environment. Marx believed that Hegel had at one point grasped this in Die Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1868; also known as The Phenomenology of Mind, 1910), when he spoke of the slave’s sense of self-identification as superior to the master’s because the former’s transformative interaction with nature gives a solidly achieved sense of self, while the latter is subject to the shifting tides of honor and opinion in an elitist world cut off from its productive roots. However, these ideas were soon buried, and Hegel constructs his history as the history of consciousness moving on its own steam toward “theoretical” self-appropriation. Against Feuerbach, Marx stresses that the progressive taking back of alienated human properties from postulated divinities cannot be displayed as moving toward a passive, sensationalistic empiricism of the English sort, with its concomitant pleasure ethic, political indifference, and historical blindness. For Marx, people recognize their own essence (Wesen) in and by their productive activity, and therefore progressively in proportion as they make nature a home that expresses themselves (“humanized nature”). This Marx calls “active or practical materialism,” as opposed to Feuerbach’s “speculative” materialism.

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The first attempt to carry out this historical project occurs in The German Ideology, on which Marx collaborated with Engels. What stands out in this account is a conscious attempt both to suppress the essentialistic language that had hitherto characterized Marx’s thinking and to insist upon the empiricist credentials of the authors. What is to be traced is a factual history of the human race, in which changing forms of production determine corresponding sociopolitical patterns and legitimating ideologies. Essentialistic language would automatically imply, it is asserted, that the determination works the other way around, as in Hegel, and (it is now insisted) in the Young Hegelians as well. Nevertheless, looked at more closely, what we actually find here is a history with a high degree of quasilogical and dialectical patterning, and a suspicion arises that the forecast of the coming socialist order with which the work culminates is derived as much from his dialectical machinery as from the empiricistic database on which we are merely told that it rests. It is plausible to think, then, that some essentialism, and indeed some Hegelian dialectic of consciousness, lurks inside these empiricist trappings. The resolution of this tension between contingent empirical fact and necessary quasi-logical unfolding in accounting for human history constitutes the most difficult and vital problem in the analysis of Marx’s mature philosophical commitments. Two other problems are associated with it: (1) How is either empiricism or quasi logicism consistent with Marx’s claim that human agents freely make their own history? and (2) How is Marx capable of exempting his own analyses from the sociopolitical and economic determinism on which, in his view, it would appear all intellectual products rest?

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