“THUS the critique of heaven is transmuted into the critique of earth, the critique of religion into the critique of law and the critique of theology into the critique of politics.”
This utterance of Karl Marx is the starting-point of both these series of lectures. Their title, “Critique of heaven and earth”, is taken from it; and its interpretation is the compass by which our course is set. The passage was not chosen at random; it comes from Marx's article called Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law, an article that has achieved renown as the Magna Charta of the critique of religion. Whereas the “critique of heaven” was the subject of the first lecture series, this second series will be centred on the “critique of earth”. That is already enough to indicate the connection, the indissoluble connection, between the two series. Just as the beating of a man's heart is felt throughout his body, from head to toe, so here the “critique” is like a single heartbeat pulsating in both parts. The analogy can be taken even further, in so far as the relation takes effect in a dynamic transition characterized by the verb “transmuted into” (verwandelt sich in). We have already encountered in the first series the remarkable interaction between the “critique of heaven” and the “critique of earth”, a two-way movement in which the passage we have cited functions also in reverse: the critique of earth is transmuted into the critique of heaven. That reminds one of the circulation of the blood, of the bloodstream which returns to the heart, is there “transmuted” and is pumped again through the body.
The reason for thinking of an interaction of some sort lies immediately to hand. In the first place, there is the striking fact that Marx's critique of religion turns out to be part of the critique of law; and, what is more, this article is concerned not with the critique of law in a direct sense but with the critique of the philosophy of law. That would appear to conflict with the statement that the critique of religion is transmuted into the critique of law. Marx pointed out this contradiction himself; for he follows it up at once by saying that the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law is not in the first instance attached to the original (namely, law) but to a copy, that is, to the philosophy of the German state and German law. Marx is pursuing an indirect method, therefore. Already in the first series we gave thought to the intimate connection between Marx's critique of Hegel's philosophy, on the one hand, and his critique of theology and religion, on the other. Evidently, it is not just the case that the critique of religion issues in the critique of law; but conversely, the critique of law presupposes an indirect method that leads through the critique of religion.
In the present series too, we shall keep running into this problem, only this time approaching it from the other side. There is yet another problem. The pronouncement on which these lectures are based dates from the year 1844. That year constitutes a turning-point in Marx's life and work also, in that it saw the inception of the Critique of Political Economy, at any rate in the explicit sense in which that study was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life. That is the reason, therefore, why no mention is made of that critique in the passage cited. The subject comes up, of course, in the article and is considered there; but it does not as yet form the pivot on which the argument is made to turn. The passage quoted speaks only of “law” and “politics” as the subject-matter of the critique of earth, saying nothing about political economy. This again shows the extent to which the passage marks a transition to a new period: the critique of law and politics does indeed implicitly embrace the critique of political economy; but the latter has not yet become explicit. Then again, we have here a new pointer to the interaction I was speaking of a moment ago; for evidently, at the level of law and politics we are still only halfway to heaven. Years later, looking back on the developing course of his study of economics, Marx expressed the conclusion reached by his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law in these terms: “legal relations and forms of state… are rooted in the material conditions of life, which are summed up by Hegel in their totality… under the name ‘civil society’; the anatomy of that civil society is to be sought in political economy.” The transition, therefore, is a dual one, which has to cross over from the critique of heaven to the critique of earth. To put it another way: the critique of law and politics has a distinctive midway position, forming as it does a bridge between the critique of religion, on the one hand, and that of political economy, on the other.
All this serves to indicate the course which this second series of lectures is to take. It will move from the critique of law and politics to the critique of political economy. All the time we shall keep clearly in view the fundamental connection with the critique of theology and religion. Not only shall we repeatedly encounter that connection as the lectures proceed, but the problem of the interaction will come to light and will assume an acute form more especially in the critique of political economy.
In order to get our sights firmly fixed on the transition from the critique of heaven to the critique of earth, and so also from the first to the second series of lectures, we must return once more to Marx's dissertation, which has a central place in his critique of heaven. We have already seen how Marx's way of interpreting the quite distinctive character of Epicurus' theory of atoms stands in direct relation to the analysis of the atomistic character of civil society, which Marx was to develop in subsequent years. In a sense one might even make a connection here with the term “anatomy of civil society”, which is the starting-point for the Critique of Political Economy. The term “anatomy”, dis-section, comes from the same Greek verb from which is derived the word “atom”: a-tomos, indivisible. In that sense “anatomy” may be interpreted as the disclosure, by means of analysis, of the atomistic structure, the “an-atomy”, of civil society.
In his Gifford Lectures on The Relevance of Science the German physicist and philosopher, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, has pointed to the abiding and fundamental importance of the theory of atoms propounded by Democritus and Epicurus. Having first considered the areas of correspondence and of difference with modern atomic physics, he concludes that this relation with modern physical science does not really get to the heart of the matter. We would be failing to understand the atomic theory of the ancients if we took it to be in the first place a scientific hypothesis intended to provide an explanation of observed phenomena. Actually, the main development of the sciences in which antiquity most excelled—mathematics and astronomy—was closely connected with the philosophical school diametrically opposed to the atomists, that is, the school of Plato. Essentially, atomism was a philosophy, that is to say, an attempt to solve the speculative problem of Being. Whilst from the standpoint of modern science this may present itself as a weakness typical of metaphysical dogmatism, conversely, modern “scientism”, or faith in the scientific method, labours under a similar kind of dogmatism, but without being itself aware of the weakness. Significantly enough, modern quantum-theory confronts physicists with precisely the sort of philosophical questions that the empirical atomism of the nineteenth century thought it could avoid.
Its character as philosophy, von Weizsäcker continues, is just what makes the atomism of the ancient world so amazingly modern. From the standpoint of the modern empirical approach the ancient saying that the atom is one would seem to be no more than a rather obscure description of the actual indivisibility of the atom in practice; but ancient atomism interprets the absolute indivisibility of the atom as a self-evident, natural consequence of its ontological quality of being one. Of course, this speculative approach does contrast with modern science, which is based on the quantitative description of phenomena, itself based on the notion of mathematical laws. Even so, the ancient theory of atoms as it related to cosmogony, the idea of the rotating celestial sphere having emerged from a primeval storm of whirling atoms, has had a surprising sequel in modern theories about the origin of the universe. It is the atomists' conception of an infinite universe with an infinite number of atoms forming an infinite number of worlds that seems so amazingly modern. This atomistic cosmogony is in the nature of a scientific myth. Its god is the blind necessity of the atomic collisions. This anti-religious element was thoroughly logical; but it involved the temporary eclipse of the atomistic philosophy in the European tradition. When, in the late period of antiquity, even the intellectuals longed for a religious revival, it was all over with this philosophy. Notably in Christian Europe, atomism was unable to lead more than an underground existence, until, in the first half of the seventeenth century, it underwent a surprising turn of fortune.
“A Catholic clergyman with a considerable scientific reputation and of unimpeachable orthodoxy,” we read in Dijksterhuis' study of the “mechanizing” of our view of the world, “feels himself in the grip of its fascination and sees it as his task in life to introduce it into Western thought in a theologically acceptable form. In this he succeeds; and as a result it is quickly elevated to the rank of a respectable theory of which no Christian natural scientist need feel ashamed.” This thinker was Pierre Gassendi, with whose work Marx's dissertation evinces a connection.
Dijksterhuis draws a comparison between the way that Pierre Gassendi in the seventeenth, and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, managed to incorporate something of the ancient world and its mentality into the scientific culture of Christendom. In both cases, opposition on the part of ecclesiastical authority had to be overcome, and certain aspects which Christian thought could not accept—in particular, the uncreatedness and eternal existence of the world—had to be eliminated from the pagan theories. Greater than the likeness, however, is the difference between them. Whereas Thomas, by combining Aristotelean philosophy with Christian doctrine, established a harmony between faith and knowledge, Gassendi, by making a theory with an explicitly materialistic tenor theologically plausible, sowed within the Christian consciousness a germ of disquiet and of discord that was to have precisely the opposite effect to what Thomas had been aiming at. One can hardly suppose that Gassendi did not sense this. That he nonetheless gave himself heart and soul to the task of implementing the atomistic way of thinking, and of demonstrating its compatibility with the Christian faith, witnesses to the irresistible power with which a scientific mode of thought was developing, through an inner drive of its own, into an independent authority alongside, and if need be in opposition to, the faith. Gassendi's activity, and likewise that of Descartes, who in respect of the Christian world view stood with his own particular notion of the world just as Gassendi did with classical atomism, is to be regarded “as an attempt pursued with the utmost energy either to prevent or, in so far as it was already a fact, to plaster over the irrevocable and imminent rupture in men's way of looking at the world.”
No one in Gassendi's time had a keener, clearer vision of that rupture than the Christian thinker, skilled also in mathematics and in physics, Blaise Pascal. His opposition to Descartes' theory of corpuscles, which is closely akin to Gassendi's theory (Pensées 78 and 79: Descartes inutile et incertain), was not the product of an Aristotelean-Platonic philosophy, a religious philosophy, but did in fact comprise a rejection of the metaphysical pretensions of Cartesianism. Pascal saw very clearly the consequences of the image of the world presented by the modern natural science (Pensée 206: Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie, the eternal silence of those infinite spaces appals me); nature is such that it everywhere carries the traces of a God who has perished, both in man and outside man (la nature est telle qu'elle marque partout un Dieu perdu et dans l'homme et hors de l'homme). It is this modern awareness which, with an express reference to this thought of Pascal's, the young Hegel (1802) describes as a sense that God Himself is dead. Hegel's speculative philosophy is a comprehensive attempt to heal the breach, to bridge the chasm. By way of his dialectic, the modern sense of God's death is resolved into a speculative Idea of God. Again at the level of human society, the same penetrating gaze enables Hegel to detect the historic break that has occurred in the modern period, the incursion of “civil society”; yet here too the rupture is healed, specifically in the Idea of the state.
At both levels, Marx assails the speculative attempt at accommodation in Hegel's philosophy. In his dissertation he analyses the whole range of subjective problems raised by Epicurus' theory of atoms, and so offers a new interpretation of an ancient natural philosophy that, with the rise of modern science, was retrieved from its age-old exile, into which a Christian tradition had thrust it. In so doing, Marx radically opposes Gassendi's lukewarm and Hegel's glorious effort to bridge the gulf.
The real importance of Marx's dissertation, however, is not located in the plane of natural philosophy, but resides in the quite distinctive way in which he analyses and interprets Epicurus' atomism. The problems exposed in his dissertation are those posed by modern atomistic society, by what Hegel called “civil society”. Thus the critique of heaven, completed in the dissertation, returns in the critique of earth, more explicitly in the critique of Hegel's philosophy of law. At this level too Hegel's speculative attempt at accommodation is torpedoed. Marx chooses his starting-point in that very reality of modern times which with his speculative approach Hegel wanted to deny. From the analysis of Epicurus' atomism he proceeds to the an-atomy of civil society.
Marx took thorough stock of the historical perspective of his critical work against the background of the history of European thought. In direct association with the passage relating the analysis of Epicurus' atomism to that of civil society, Marx gives us in Die Heilige Familie (1844) a brief outline of the development of French materialism. There we can see revealed the deeper motives behind Marx's attempt to devise his own quite distinctive form of “materialism”. In his sketch one sees, as it were, the historical contours of the critique of heaven and of the critique of earth running across each other. The sketch interests us not in the first instance as a piece of historiography but as a mirror in which the image of Marx's own design is displayed.
The sketch begins at the point where the two lines of critique coincide. The French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and especially French materialism, was not only a battle against current political institutions and against the metaphysics of the seventeenth century and against all metaphysics, in particular the metaphysics of Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz. French materialism comprises two trends or schools, the one originating with Descartes, the other with Locke. The latter school is mainly an element in French culture and has its outcome in socialism. The former school, that of mechanistic materialism, issues in French natural science. Both schools have developed along paths that cross from time to time.
So far as the former school, that of mechanistic materialism, is concerned, its course is briefly sketched by Marx as follows. In his physics, Descartes had regarded matter as being invested with the energy needed to produce itself (selbstschöpferische Kraft); the mechanistic process he envisaged as the vital activity of matter (Lebensakt). In his physics, matter is the sole substance, the only ground of being and knowing. Now French mechanistic materialism aligned itself with Descartes' physics, as opposed to his metaphysics. His followers were physicists and therefore anti-metaphysicians by occupation.
With Descartes' metaphysics, therefore, the position was quite different. From the very start he was up against materialism—and that in the person of Gassendi, who rehabilitated Epicurean materialism. French and English materialism remained all the time closely associated with Democritus and Epicurus. In addition, there was another contrast between Descartes' metaphysics and the English materialist, Hobbes.
The metaphysics of the seventeenth century (Descartes, Leibniz) still had a positive, profane content. This metaphysics gave rise to discoveries in the field of mathematics, of physics and of certain other sciences; and it looked as though those discoveries were a direct outcome of the metaphysics. That semblance was destroyed as early as the eighteenth century. The positive sciences had freed themselves from metaphysics and had marked off the bounds of their own territory. The whole realm of metaphysics still consisted only in ‘beings of thought’ (Gedankenwesen) and things heavenly, the more so as real existents (realen Wesen) and the things of earth were beginning to monopolize attention.
The man who rendered the metaphysics of the seventeenth century and all metaphysics theoretically incredible was Pierre Bayle. His weapon was scepticism, a weapon forged out of the metaphysical spells of sorcery; religious doubt drove Bayle to doubt regarding the metaphysics on which belief was based; and so he subjected metaphysics and its whole history to criticism. He became the historiographer of metaphysics in order to write the history of its demise. But Bayle did more than that. He was the harbinger of the atheistic society, which he heralded by showing that a society consisting simply of atheists is possible, that an atheist can be an honourable person, that man is not degraded by atheism but by superstition and idolatry. Thus Pierre Bayle became the last metaphysician in the seventeenth-century sense of the word, and the first philosopher in the eighteenth-century sense of the term.
Apart from the negative combating of the theology and metaphysics of the seventeenth century, there was need for a positive, anti-metaphysical system. This was provided by the philosopher who stands at the head of the second school of French materialism, the Englishman, John Locke. “Materialism is Great Britain's very own offspring. Even the British scholastic Duns Scotus (whose theology seems to be confused by Marx with William of Ockham's theology) wondered whether matter might not be able to think. To make this miracle come true he had recourse to God's omnipotence, or in other words, he obliged theology to proclaim a materialism of its own. Moreover, he was a nominalist. We find nominalism to be a principal component where the English materialists are concerned; it is in fact the earliest expression of materialism.”
Next Marx gives a concise sketch of English materialism and the course of its development. Its real progenitor, the progenitor of all modern experimental science, is Francis Bacon. Natural science he holds to be the true science, and sensory physics the main part of natural science. Democritus with his atoms is one of Bacon's most oft-quoted authorities. Bacon teaches that the senses are utterly reliable and are the source of all knowledge. Science is empirical science, the knowledge of experience, and consists in applying a rational method to what is given by the senses. Induction, analysis, comparison, observation and experiment—these are the principal elements of a rational method. Of the properties inherent in matter, the chief and most excellent is motion.
This brings Marx to the essential core of his historical exposition. In Francis Bacon's case—so his argument runs—“the movement of matter is not simply envisaged as mechanical and mathematical motion, but more as impulse (Trieb), vital spirit (Lebensgeist), tensile force (Spannkraft), as the agonizing (Qual) of matter”. By his own account, Marx borrowed this latter expression from the German mystic, Jakob Böhme (1575–1624), who was a contemporary of Bacon's (1561–1626). The word Qual is almost untranslatable. It means literally “torment”, “pain”. The meaning is best rendered, I would think, by “pangs”, which can refer to birth as well as to death (“pangs of death”). Again, the term Trieb in German has quite distinctive associations, which we shall come across in the next lecture, when dealing with Marx's article on the legislation against wood-stealing.
At a crucial point in Marx's argument we again encounter the mystical philosopher, Böhme. In the context of Marx's dissertation we have already met a quotation from Böhme, intended to illustrate Epicurus' doctrine of immortality, which is presented in the form of a theory regarding the eternity of atoms. Marx cites a poem by Böhme in that connection: whoever conceives eternity as time and time as eternity is freed from all discord. And he appends the observation that this teaching does not do away with belief in immortality but helps to explain it and gives it intelligible expression. Now Marx turns once again to this German philosopher and mystic, this time for confirmation in his mother tongue of the views of the English materialist, Bacon. He adds thereto, by way of further elucidation: the primitive forms of matter are “living, individualizing forces of being, inherent in matter, which produce the specific differences” (lebendige, individualisierende, ihr inhärente, die spezifischen Unterschiede produzierende Wesenkräfte).
Obviously, Marx detects in Bacon's materialism the heartbeat of the materialism that is present to his own mind. In Bacon, his argument goes on, “materialism conserves within it, though as yet in a naive fashion, the seeds of many-sided development. In its poetic and sensuous lustre matter commends itself to the whole person (die Materie lacht in poetischsinnlichem Glanze den ganzen Menschen an). Aphoristic teaching as such, on the other hand, still bristles with theological illogicalities.”
Actually, Marx uses an even stronger expression: “In Bacon, as in its first creator, materialism conserves within it, though as yet in a naive fashion, the seeds of a many-sided development.” How are we to understand this expression? >From a historical viewpoint it would appear absurd, for we know that Bacon looks back to the ancient materialism of Democritus. In that context, of course, he is rightly called the “real progenitor” of English materialism; but more than that seems to be meant by the expression “first creator”. When we examine it more closely, in fact, the whole passage on the origin of English materialism turns out to be pregnant with theological expressions. It begins with the assertion that materialism is “der eingeborne Sohn Grossbritanniens”. On a historical view, this again seems absurd. But here, too, more would appear to be intended than a given fact of history. I previously translated this phrase as “very own offspring (son)”, since the adjective eingeboren has the meaning of “inborn”, “innate” (as one might speak of an “innate” talent or quality), whilst the noun Eingeborne means “native”. However, a much more obvious thing to do is to take der eingeborne Sohn as a biblical expression in the sense in which St. John's Gospel acclaims Jesus Christ to be “the only-begotten Son” of the Father (John 1:14,; 183:18). This rendering would seem at first sight to be absurd, which is why I avoided it in the first instance. But on more careful analysis the incongruity disappears. After all, Marx immediately clarifies the point by going on to say that the scholastic, Duns Scotus, had already contemplated the possibility of a “thinking matter” and had forced theology itself to proclaim materialism. He then describes the nominalism of which Duns Scotus was an advocate as “the earliest expression of materialism”.
When we consider the passage as a whole, it must strike us as being a most remarkable materialistic counterpart to the prologue of the Johannine Gospel. What Marx apparently has in mind is a new beginning for materialism in Christian Europe. Theology itself becomes the voice of materialism. Admittedly, materialism was by then many centuries old; it had been inherited from classical antiquity. But just as the Johannine prologue looks back to Genesis 1, and in the Word's becoming flesh makes creation start all over again—or what is the same thing, brings creation to fulfilment, to complete realization in the Incarnation—so Marx gives the materialism of antiquity a fresh start and brings it to its fulfilment in the history of Christian Europe. It is the product of Christian theology. To put it more strongly, it is the way in which matter itself thinks. To put it more strongly still, it is God thinking in the guise of thinking matter, a materialized theology, the Johannine theos-logos that has become matter. The thinking of matter is no abstract thinking, but it is Lebensgeist, the living spirit of matter. We are reminded of the Spirit of God at the start of creation (Genesis 1:2), of the Johannine “In the Word (logos) was life” (John 1:4). This vital spirit is Trieb, Spannkraft, Qual, the dynamis which the New Testament ascribes to God, and the “birth-pangs” of the whole creation (Romans 8:22). This vital spirit is the motion, the movement which Marx calls “the chief and most excellent” of the properties inherent in matter (der Materie eingebornen). Here we are back with the same term, eingeboren, and with its ambiguity, implying both “inborn” and “only-begotten”; for motion is “the chief and most excellent” quality, just as Christ in the New Testament is the prototokos (the firstborn) of Mary and, as the risen Lord, the prototokos also among the many sons of God to whom the creation will ultimately give birth (Romans 8:19, 29): the firstborn.
The fact that these ideas are taken from Jakob Böhme is in itself a powerful indication of the theological content of this passage; but it is not this connection in itself with which we are now concerned. Marx is not hard at work here unfolding a mystical philosophy of matter; on the contrary, and by way of refuting Bruno Bauer's speculative ideas, he wants to give us as sober and accurate as possible an account of the real history of European materialism. Even so, he does it in a noticeably theological terminology. It is as though Feuerbach's method is being put into reverse. Whilst Feuerbach unmasks theology as covert anthropology, here, on the other hand, is Marx describing the history of materialism in theological terms and speaking of Francis Bacon as “the first creator” of materialism, in whom it yet carried the seeds of an all-round development. In Bacon we are confronted with the thinking of matter. Here the first principle of Descartes' philosophy is inverted. It is not the thinking subject that the cogito, ergo sum expresses; but the matter which Descartes' philosophy relates definitively to the status of “object” here confronts us as a thinking subject and says sum, ergo cogito. Materialism is not a product of human thinking which assumes a position over against material reality and from that distance and opposition utters statements about it. On the contrary, materialism is the self-reflection of thinking matter, which thinks in the human subject.
It is here that we get to the heart of the matter. After all, for Marx that does not lie in the development of a speculative natural philosophy, the sort of thing that, under the inspiration of Jakob Böhme's Christian-cum-mystical dialectic, for example, had come to full flower in the idealism of Hegel and Schelling. Marx approached the matter from another side. He does not describe the history of materialism as philosophy, but takes his business to be with the history of the natural sciences. Francis Bacon is the true progenitor of English materialism, because he is the true progenitor of all modern experimental science: empirical science, conducted by a rational method. His materialism was not a metaphysics separate and distinct from physics; but it was the self-reflection of thinking matter, which comes to expression in physics. It is this unity of materialism and experimental science that distinguishes English materialism from the French school with its origin in Descartes. For Descartes and other seventeenth-century philosophers such as Leibniz, metaphysics and physics still stood in a close mutual relationship; but this had already been abrogated by the outset of the eighteenth century, so that metaphysics was left completely up in the air.
Marx's opposition to Descartes was operative at two levels: that of metaphysics and that of physics. At the level of metaphysics, he had already aligned himself in his dissertation with Descartes' contemporary and antagonist, Gassendi, who revived Epicurus' theory of atoms and set the metaphysics of classical materialism over against Descartes' metaphysics. Gassendi saw clearly enough the contrariety between Descartes' metaphysics, which proceed from the thinking subject, and his physics, which treat matter as the sole, self-creating and sustaining substance. Marx builds on Gassendi, but goes beyond the limits set by Gassendi in two respects. First, he exposes Gassendi's accommodation with the Christian theological tradition as an inevitable failure. Second, he interprets Epicurus' original notion of the deviation of the atom in a way that makes Epicurus the materialistic counterpart to Descartes: the autonomy which the latter anchors in the thinking subject is secured by Epicurus in physical reality itself. Marx's interpretation, then, acquires a surprising application in the anatomy he carries out of civil society, where the citizens are so many atoms. In my final lecture we shall see this application returning in a quite remarkable version.
For Marx, however, the real problem is not located at this first level, of metaphysics, but at the second level, that of physics. Classical materialism was a philosophy that has turned out to be highly relevant to the modern development of the natural sciences; but it did not rest on empirical science controlled by a rational method. Bacon is the real progenitor of that. It is in Bacon that Marx finds the answer to his fundamental objections to Descartes' physics. Not only is Descartes' physics in flat contradiction with his metaphysics; but, what is more, his physics is very one-sided. It envisages the motion of matter as a mechanical movement pure and simple; Cartesian materialism is a mechanistic materialism, and in that form it has found its way into French science. As over against that, Marx finds in Bacon a view that approaches the movement of matter, not only as mechanical and mathematical motion, but in terms of a primitive and comprehensive essence which he describes as the Trieb, Lebensgeist, Spannkraft, Qual of matter. Whereas in Descartes' physics the thinking of matter is the mirror of an abstract, objectivizing thinking, in Bacon we find thinking matter in its origin, as “vital spirit”. Matter here is not the framework, the outer shell, of mechanical and mathematical abstractions; but in its poetic and sensuous lustre it makes its appeal to the whole person. In Bacon's thinking, the materialism is still total, it still harbours within it the germ of a many-sided development; indeed, it bristles still with theological illogicalities, it is naive and primitive, it is still prior, as it were, to the modern Fall.
Here we may detect the very heartbeat of Marx's critique, the critique of heaven and the critique of earth. He lays bare the root of that process in modern times which has given rise to an all-pervading mechanistic and mathematical view of the world. The Critique of Political Economy starts at this central point, the point where the thinking and being of modern man and modern society have their origin. In the subsequent lectures we shall try to follow this line; and in the last one I shall come back to this central point.
Now we propose to follow further still the course taken by Marx's argument. The many-sided potential of English materialism in its original guise is not realized. As it develops further, materialism becomes one-sided. It is to the credit of the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, that like Gassendi he opposed Descartes' metaphysics; but he was unable to offer any resistance to the one-sided tendency of Descartes' physics. Hobbes is the systematist of Bacon's materialism. The bloom fades from sensory awareness and experience (Sinnlichkeit), turning instead to the abstract sensationalism of geometry. Physical motion is sacrificed to mechanical or mathematical motion; geometry is proclaimed to be the principal science. Materialism becomes inimical to man. So that the anti-human, flesh-less spirit (menschenfeindlichen, fleischlosen Geist) may be conquered on its own ground, materialism must itself shed and mortify its flesh and become ascetic. It appears as a being of mere reasoning intelligence (Verstandeswesen), but it consequently develops the ruthless consistency of the reasoning intelligence (rücksichtlose Konsequenz des Verstandes).
If sensory experience is the source of all human knowledge, so runs Hobbes' argument, then visual contemplation, thought, representation and so forth are nothing other than phantoms (Phantome) of the world of material bodies (Körperwelt), which is more or less divested of its sensory form. The thought, the idea, cannot be separated from a matter that thinks; for the latter is the subject of every change. Because only what is material can be observed, can be known, we can know nothing, therefore, of God's existence. Only my own existence is certain. Every human passion is a mechanical motion, which ends or begins. Man is subject to the same laws as nature. Power and freedom are identical.
Hobbes is significant in that he systematized Bacon and thereby “abolished the theistic prejudices of Bacon's materialism”. That would seem a logical enough conclusion to Marx's historical sketch; but on closer inspection here is a hidden dilemma that calls for attention. After all, Marx has just been criticizing the one-sided development, to which Hobbes' thinking had subjected English materialism, as the fatal reduction whereby a materialism embracing the whole of physical and human reality is abstracted to a mechanical and mathematical model. It is this very fatality that he reveals in civil society as the reduction of the human person to an ascetic, wraithlike figure, devoted to the worship of abstractions. Physical motion is sacrificed in the interest of mechanical and mathematical motion. Yet in an enigmatic way this would appear to go hand in hand with the “abolition of theistic prejudices” and of “theological illogicalities”. Hobbes' atheism is the atheism of civil society. Yet this is just what Marx is determined to oppose. Without seeking to formulate it clearly, the dilemma with which Marx sees himself confronted comprises the question how we are to overcome the fatal tendency to erect a mechanical and mathematical world view without relapsing into Bacon's “theological illogicalities” and “theistic prejudices”.
In the remaining part of Marx's historical sketch this dilemma is not resolved. In it he traces the line running from English materialism to French materialism. On English materialism the French conferred esprit, they restored to it flesh and blood, gave it balance and grace. In short, the French civilized it. This is the second school of French materialism, which runs from Bacon, through Locke to Condillac and Helvetius. Whereas the first school, stemming from Descartes, issues in science proper, this second school gives rise to socialism and communism. It puts a great deal of emphasis on the outward circumstances of environment and culture as providing the preconditions for the development of human kind. If man is formed by circumstances, then circumstances must be formed in a humane way. If man is social by nature, then he develops his true nature primarily in society, and the potential of his nature is not to be gauged by that of the isolated individual but by that of society. Whilst the socialist, Fourier, takes French materialism as his immediate starting-point, Dézamy develops the doctrine of real humanism as the logical basis of communism. Like Feuerbach in the theoretical field, so French and English socialism and communism in the practical field stood for the materialism that is identical with humanism.
The historical sketch finishes at this point. In the Thesen über Feuerbach, which likewise date from this period (spring 1845), Marx goes a step further. There he criticizes all materialism, that of Feuerbach included, because it envisages the reality present to the senses only in the form of object or of observation, but not as human sensory activity, praxis, not subjectively (thesis 1). At the same time he criticizes the Anglo-French materialism which issues in socialism and communism. The materialistic doctrine that human beings are the products of circumstances and upbringing, and thus that changed people are the products of different circumstances and altered upbringing, overlooks the fact that circumstances are changed by people and that the educator has himself to be educated. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and the human activity can only be conceived as revolutionary praxis and understood on a rational basis (thesis 3). The standpoint of the old materialism is “civil”, i.e. “bourgeois” society; the standpoint of the new materialism is human society, or socialized humanity (thesis 10).
These critical theses stand out sharply against the background of the historical outline we have just been reproducing. What Marx has in view is a total, many-sided materialism that does in the realm of practice exactly what the original English materialism had envisaged in the theoretical realm of natural science: a new materialism capable of overcoming the fatal reduction of social reality in civil society and of producing an all-round humane society. This new materialism can be expressed in the same terms used to describe Bacon's materialism, namely, an empirical kind of knowledge or science that consists of applying a rational method to what is given by the senses. It differs fundamentally from the old materialism in that it starts from what is given to and by the senses as human sensory activity, praxis. The essential being of man is the “ensemble of social relations” (thesis 6) and the life of society is essentially practical (thesis 8). Just as in its first creator, Bacon, the old materialism carried within itself, though still in a naive fashion, the seeds of a many-sided growth, so it is possible to describe the new materialism in analogous terms. In Marx, its first creator, the new materialism carries within itself, though as yet naively, the seeds of a many-sided growth. Only Bacon stands at the outset of a developing process, the end of which Marx can see approaching. That is why Marx cannot rest content with a revival of the old materialism; he is faced with the task of transcending it in a new dimension. The process of mechanizing and “mathematicizing” nature has gone hand in hand with the same process applied to society, that is, to human nature. By subjecting this development in the social realm to his critique, Marx simultaneously gets to grips with the analogous development in the realm of nature. He conducts this critique by applying a rational analysis in the area of human nature, on the analogy of Bacon's rational analysis of nature. The character of his rational analysis transcends the rational analysis of nature, just as human nature itself transcends nature. Just as, in Bacon's theoretical materialism, matter is said to think, so, in Marx's practical materialism, human nature—that is, society, which is something essentially practical—emerges as activity, as praxis. And just as natural science by critical analysis changes nature, so does this scientific knowledge of society, by critical analysis, change society: its theory is revolutionary praxis.
With this provisional description of the quite distinctive character of materialism that Marx had in view, I must leave the matter. It is typical that the Thesen über Feuerbach, the theses on Feuerbach, are no more than notes, casually jotted down and found later on by Engels among Marx's papers. Furthermore, I have used these theses to supplement and round off a historical outline of the “old materialism”, which stops just at the point where Marx's own design begins. Conversely, this historical sketch turned out, as reflected in the Baconian mirror, to yield an image of Marx's vision which the Thesen über Feuerbach certainly adumbrate but do not develop. Here we come up against a peculiar difficulty which makes it extremely hard to get at Marx's ideas. In the first series of lectures I referred to his “socratic” method, which he applied to human society as a whole. Although Marx left behind an enormous body of writing, it gives no direct access to the central core of his maieutic method, just as we know Socrates only through the writings of Plato. There are various aspects to this problem. I mention three of them here.
At a philosophical level, the problem is comparable with the one we encounter, for instance, in acquainting ourselves with the thinking of Kant and Hegel, to mention only two philosophers who have a close relation to Marx's method. By using terms like “critique” and “dialectic”, one can of course give some indication of the work of these two philosophers respectively; but method, content and result are so indissolubly bound up together that these terms only assume a meaning when we follow the actual workings of their philosophy and from that read off indirectly, as it were, what is entailed in the case of Kant by “critique” and in that of Hegel by “dialectic”.
With Marx the problem is duplicated, in that his “critique” and “dialectic” are fundamentally connected with a “materialism” that requires to be understood by strict analogy with the “materialism” of natural science qua experimental knowledge under the control of a rational method. Just as we do not get to understand science from the “results” it provides, but only by ourselves conducting experimental research or following it step by step, so one can only get to know Marx's critical method by following closely how it works, which means in effect, tracing the course taken by his “critique of political economy”.
This by no means spells an end to our difficulties, however; it is here that they really begin. The fundamental distinction between physical science and social science aggravates the already doubled problem, triples it in fact. The sui generis character of the human as opposed to the natural world makes necessary a sui generis method, if its secrets are to be unlocked. The difficulty is that of a paradox: on the one hand, we have to dispel the error that we have direct access to the reality that is man—which is after all “our own” reality—through self-contemplation and speculation; on the other hand, the suggestion must be resisted that the human reality might be assessed with the same method as physical science employs in its approach to the reality of nature.
If to all that we add the full tally of mounting resistance and misunderstanding which Marx's “critique of earth” must inevitably arouse, because as terrestrial beings we are ourselves the direct object of that critique, then we shall have some impression of the minefield barring access to Marx's critical method. We shall let be for the present these resistant attitudes and misconceptions, in so far as they are of an “ideological” character; for they only distract us from the essential problem, three relevant aspects of which I have Indicated.
For a start, I should point out the fundamental connection of the threefold problem of the “critique of earth”, already outlined, with the “critique of heaven”. To put it another way, the “critique of political economy” simply cannot be detached from the “critique of theology”. Here is a serious impediment for the theologian who is not well up in the special field of economics. We have here a situation with a whole history behind it; and how that situation has come about has already been indicated in Marx's outline of the history of English materialism, which he sees as starting with the scholastic theology of Duns Scotus.
We might also give some account of this course of events in terms of the historical background to the Gifford Lectures, in the context of which these present lectures are being given. The aim of the lectures was defined by Lord Gifford as promoting the study of natural theology. This he defined as “the knowledge of God… of his nature and attributes, the knowledge of the relations which men and the whole universe bear to Him, the knowledge of the nature and foundation of ethics and morals, and of all obligations and duties thence arising”. He was uttering his deep-rooted conviction that this knowledge, provided it is genuinely anchored in feeling and put into practice, is the means to man's greatest wellbeing and the guarantee of his progress.
The foundation document was drawn up by Lord Gifford in 1887. In the period of almost a century which separates us from that time, a process of emancipation and of secularization has taken place, where the modern scientific disciplines are concerned, that has set the aims and purposes proposed by the founder in a radically altered situation. The definition of “natural theology”, in particular, can only be understood in the context of a historical background and a course of development which take us back to the theology of the Middle Ages. An illustration of this is the emancipation of economics as a science—an example directly linked with the issue which concerns us now, namely, the connection between the critique of theology and the critique of economics.
In his monumental, posthumously published work, the History of Economic Analysis, Joseph Schumpeter sketches the origins of the science of economics and its roots in scholasticism. Whereas the economic sociology of the late scholastic period was mainly an elaboration of the doctrine developed in the thirteenth century, “pure” economics was peculiarly the creation of this later period. Within the framework of the systems of moral theology and law developed by the scholastic theologians, economics acquired a distinct if not separate existence. This is why one might describe the theologians of later scholasticism as the “founders” of economics as a science. Indeed they laid for it a firmer basis than did a number of “lay” economists of subsequent generations; a substantial part of the economics of the second half of the nineteenth century would have been developed more rapidly and with less exertion if late scholasticism had been taken as the basis on which to build.
The modern history of the system of natural law exhibits a continuity from scholasticism up to the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, it underwent a gradual disintegration or, at any rate, transformation. If, to begin with, it was a comprehensive system within which all non-juridical subjects were assigned a subsidiary place, in the eighteenth century the flood of material and the opening up of new fields of enquiry and research broke open this outer framework; and “natural jurisprudence” became simply a specialism within a new setting which no longer had to do in the first instance with law. This new entity came to be known, especially in Germany and Scotland, as “Moral Philosophy”, where the term “philosophy” was taken in its traditional sense of the total sum of sciences (Thomas' philosophicae disciplinae). Thus, moral philosophy comprised, roughly speaking, the social sciences (the sciences of “mind” and “society”), as opposed to “natural philosophy” which included the physical sciences and mathematics. Moral philosophy was the subject of a standard course in the university curricula and consisted for the most part of natural theology, natural ethics, natural jurisprudence and policy or “police”, which included economics (economy) and also public finance (“revenue”). Like his mentor at Glasgow University, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith taught moral philosophy; and like Hutcheson's work, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations formed part of a larger systematic whole, from which it had been, as it were, uncoupled. Thus the universal social science of the old scholastics and of the philosophers of natural law continued in a new form. But it was not destined to survive for long. Although during the first half of the nineteenth century moral philosophy still kept its place in the university curriculum, even towards the end of the eighteenth century it had already lost its old importance and position. Its downfall was caused by the same factor that had finally exploded the natural-law system: perpetually increasing specialization. Even Adam Smith realized that he was no longer in a position to continue the work of his mentor in developing a complete system of moral philosophy or social science as a single whole. The time for that had gone. The science of economics now demanded a man's full time and energy.
It is against the background of all this history that the problem with which Marx's life's work confronts us becomes clearly recognizable. Marx was not an economist by profession; but as soon as he had finished his university studies, it was with an almost superhuman degree of effort that he turned to the study of economics and made it his own. This was not something all on its own, but was a necessary outcome of the study he had pursued at the university, namely, that of jurisprudence. Even that professional study, however, Marx had not taken up as a specialism but in conjunction with, and as an aspect of, his philosophical and historical studies. So we can see in Marx's life, from the very outset of his studies, an operative passion for doing “philosophy” in the sense in which the Middle Ages had understood it: that is to say, as the total sum of the sciences. And at the same time he is impelled by what is really a modern enthusiasm to become a specialist in the discipline of economics. Like the boatswain in one of his youthful poems, he tries with heroic determination to row against the stream of modern history and to undo the emancipation of economics as a science. Behind it all is his vision of a human society in which the abstraction of bourgeois existence is overcome and it is once again possible to lead an all-round, human existence.
It is this tendency in Marx's Critique of Political Economy—the tendency to row against the stream of modern history—that constitutes the main problem for an adequate assessment of it. At the same time, implied in the problem is a challenge to theology to undergo such a transformation that it is rendered capable of describing the dimensions of the problem; a transformation that in turn will create a framework in which the problem can be answered; a framework within which the critique of heaven and the critique of earth have a place together. Nowadays we seem to be further away from this than ever, further than was the period in which Lord Gifford set out to promote the study of “natural theology”, much further than was the age in which Adam Smith taught moral philosophy.
I am far from deluding myself that the problem is being solved; for the first thing is to see that it is stated as clearly as possible. It is interesting and also encouraging to note that Joseph Schumpeter too encountered this same problem. As the title of his great work indicates, his intention is to describe the history of “economic analysis”. He means by this “pure economics”; and he distinguishes this “pure economic analysis” from “the systems of political economy” and from “economic thinking”. By “systems of political economy” he understands the setting out of a comprehensive series of economic measures or enactments as regulated by certain (normative) principles, like those of economic liberalism, say, or of socialism, and so forth. Schumpeter regards Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations as one such attempt to devise a system of political economy. As a historian of “economic analysis”, Schumpeter is only concerned with it to the extent that Smith's work contains this pure analysis. The rest Schumpeter sees as no more than particular expressions of the ideology of his age and of his country, which for another time and another country is of no value whatever.
The same fate that lay in store for Adam Smith is apportioned in Schumpeter's work to Karl Marx's Critique of Political Economy. He praises Marx as a born economic analyst, but is interested only in that element. It necessitates cutting up Marx's work into small pieces and distributing it over a large number of aspects of economics, which are dealt with one by one, in separate chapters and sections. Schumpeter sees nothing wrong with this compartmentalizing method where economists as a whole are concerned; but he makes one exception—and that is Marx. The trouble, as Schumpeter see it, is that, when Marx's work is dealt with by this method, are essential element is lost, an element indispensable to a proper understanding. In Marx's case, it is “the totality of his vision which as a totality asserts itself in every detail, and that very fact provides the deepest reason why everyone, friend or foe, who makes a study of his work falls beneath its intellectual spell”. The recognition here of the sui generis character of Marx's work, which cannot be contained within the framework of Schumpeter's historiography and still less within the categories of “pure economic analysis”, seems to me a more accurate, fairer representation, and in a sense a corrective to the characterization offered some years previously by the same author. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy not only is Marxism branded as “a religion”, but Marx's doctrine is expounded in four chapters that divide Marx into four: the prophet, the sociologist, the economist and the teacher; a procedural method that guarantees in advance that the unity of Marx's work will remain out of the picture.
Karl Popper goes further, and on the basis of this first aspect tries to arrive at a complete evaluation of Marx's work. The second part of his study, The Open Society and its Enemies, rejects Marxism as “the purest, the most developed and the most dangerous form of historicism”, by which he meant “the claim that the realm of social sciences coincides with that of the historical or evolutionary method, and especially with historical prophecy”. Marx was indeed a prophet, a false prophet. Robert Tucker (in Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx) goes further still, and reaches the conclusion that Marx put history in reverse and reduced philosophy to its origins in myth. It is typical of mythical or mythological thinking that “something which of its nature forms part of the inner reality of man is apprehended as existing outside him, that a drama of man's inner life is experienced and is depicted as though it were taking place in the outer world”.
With these few examples, which I have purposely chosen from authors who really do make an effort to reach a sound and responsible judgment on Marx's work, I must be content. When we compare Schumpeter's belated recognition of Marx's thought as a totality which eludes the grasp of his “history of economic analysis”, with such verdicts as “false prophet” and “mythical thinking”, then we have to note a fundamental distinction. The idea that Marx's method confronts us with an unsolved problem for which we need a different kind of approach, different categories, in order to describe it adequately (not to speak of finding a solution), is completely buried under Popper's and Tucker's qualifications. At the close of their studies we see the victorious author in the arena, stooping over his thoroughly defeated victim, Karl Marx.
Against the background of the development of a century of Marxism such a posture is quite understandable. There can be no doubt that Marx's thinking has been turned upside down and transformed into the very thing it was meant to unmask: a total ideology. Iring Fetscher, with texts to illustrate his point, has traced the process step by step (in Von Marx zur Sowjetideologie): from Hegel to Marx; from Marxism to Leninism; from Stalinism to neo-Leninism. The author sees no reason in this development to turn further away from Marxism or to reject it; on the contrary, in post-war Germany Fetscher has been an important advocate of a renewed study of Marx's thought; and he is one of the leading thinkers who have promoted an intensive study of Marx in the context of German protestantism.
I said a few things in my first lecture on “the critique of heaven” about the positive significance of the neo-Marxist renaissance in both East and West and about the dialogue between Marxists and Christians that has gone along with it. In the context of the “critique of earth” what have to be pinpointed are the limitations of that dialogue. On the one hand, one can detect on the Christian side a tendency—in line with the old religious socialism but deploying all the apparatus provided by the new theology since the nineteen-thirties—to interpret Marx's critique of religion as a non-essential element in his thinking. On the other hand, there are indications that a latent Hegelian renaissance is forming a bridge by means of which Christian theology and neo-Marxist philosophy may begin to meet. This link would seem to open up to Christian theology the possibility of pushing forward to the position of Feuerbach's critique of religion and towards a politico-economic interpretation—rediscovered partly with the help of Georg Lukacz—of in particular the young Hegel.
As against that, there are still no signs that any real attempt is being made on the theological side to see Marx's critique of political economy as the most important element of his work. I will mention three studies which, though they have differing backgrounds, evince a fundamental concern with the total method of Marx's critique of economics. The French Marxist, Louis Althusser has written (together with Etienne Balibar) a kind of manual on how Das Kapital should be read as a philosophical work (Lire le Capital), and has tried to trace the structure of Marx's critique. From the hand of the Czech philosopher, Jindřich Zelený, there has appeared a study of the “logic of science” in Marx, which examines the structure of Das Kapital in association with that of Marx's earlier work (German translation, Die Wissenschaftslogik dei Marx und “Das Kapital”). Lastly, also deserving of mention is Helmut Reichelt's study, Zur logischen Struktur des Kapitalbegriffs dei Karl Marx, the work of a younger generation of Frankfurt sociologists that marks an important turning-point vis-à-vis the prevailing trend in the Frankfurter Schule to detach the critical dialectic from the critique of political economy.
There is as yet no evidence that theology is in a position to reply to studies of this kind. What is in any event necessary for that is an intensive encounter between theology and economics. Marx's “critique of earth” impels us towards a transformation of our theological categories and an interdisciplinary critique of our theological method.