AS Marxism has developed into a more or less rounded system, the terms “material” and “materialism” have assumed a central function which, precisely because of that, has become a source of the most intractable, widespread and curious misconceptions. These have been and are certainly not only and not even primarily nurtured by the opponents of Marxism, but are closely bound up with its historical evolution. They come not just from outside, but more especially from within. That is one of the reasons calling for a detailed analysis of Marx's development in the years 1842 and 1843, which he himself considered to be crucial to his career and the formation of his thinking.
In 1859, from the standpoint of his Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, he describes his activities of seventeen years before, when he was editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, as his first confrontation with “so called material interests”. Next, as a result of the critical analysis of Hegel's philosophy of law, which he carried out in 1843 and 1844, he formulates the notion that legal relations (Rechtsverhältnisse) and constitutional forms (Staatsformen) are rooted “in the material circumstances of life” (in den materiellen Lebensverhältnissen wurzeln), and proceeds further to define this rooting as “ideological forms” (ideologische Formen), in which people become conscious of the “contradictions in the material order of living” (Widersprüche des materiellen Lebens).
What is formulated here is the basic idea of “historical materialism”, so called. Marx accounts for the emergence of this insight as being expressly the result of his study of Hegel's philosophy of law. Even so, the term “materialism”, where we encounter it in the first confrontation with “so called material interests”, has a significance almost the opposite of the term as it has acquired a settled position in the compound phrase “historical materialism”. It is interesting to check the closing passage of the article on legislation against wood-stealing (which I reproduced almost word for word at the end of the previous lecture) against the use of the terms “matter”, “materialism” and “material”.
What is said there about the “so-called material interests” is that they annul every natural and intellectual distinction alle natürlichen und geistigen Unterschiede) and enthrone instead the amoral, uncomprehending and unfeeling abstraction of a particular matter and of a particular consciousness which is their slave (die unsittliche, unverständige und gemütlose Abstraktion einer bestimmten Materie und eines bestimmten, ihr sklavisch unterworfenen Bewusstseins). If we dissect the sentence, it would appear to involve two things. In the first place, the allegation that what is being enthroned is an abstraction, endowed with a kingly authority. An abstraction becomes sovereign ruler. The Rheinische Landtag's claim to represent the Rhine province is exposed as being a representation solely of private interests (Sonderinteressen). Whilst an awareness of “right” and of “law” is the Rhinelanders most considerable provincialism, private interest as such knows neither province nor homeland; it is indifferent to the general as to the local good (dass das Sonderinteresse, wie kein Vaterland, so keine Provinz, wie nicht den allgemeinen, so nicht den heimischen Geist kennt). Private interest admits only of the abstraction in which every natural and mental distinction is obliterated.
In the second place, that abstraction has a dual character: it is the abstraction of a particular matter and the abstraction of a particular consciousness. But in this twofold character the abstraction is one and indivisible; for the consciousness is a slave of the matter. Enthroned along with the abstraction of the matter is the lackey of this royal master, its obedient servant, “consciousness”. And in this twofold unity of master and servant this abstraction is the complete negation of morality, understanding and feeling.
Mark well that the complaint is not levelled at consciousness for being a sovereign ruler, nor at the imbalance usually referred to as “idealism”; nor again is the reproach aimed at the philosophy generally characterized as “materialism”, which elevates matter into a controlling principle. No; the critique concentrates exclusively on the abstraction's being made into an absolute monarch. One might see in this an attack of “idealism”; for the abstraction would seem to be a typical product of idealizing activity. Even that conclusion is wrong, because what is at issue in the first instance is the abstraction of a particular matter. It is the matter which has the initiative, the consciousness following blindly after; the matter is active, the consciousness passive. Indeed, contained in the grammatical construction is a double meaning which would appear to be deliberately calculated, and in any case expresses an essential ambiguity. The phrase “abstraction of a particular matter and of a particular… consciousness” can mean that matter and consciousness are the object, or that they are both the subject, of abstraction. In other words, one can read it as meaning that a process of abstracting from matter and consciousness is taking place, or alternatively that matter and consciousness themselves produce the abstraction. In point of fact, one might suppose that the first interpretation would obviously apply in the case of the matter, whereas the second would seem to fit very well with consciousness. After all, we naturally tend to think, matter must be the object and consciousness the subject: matter is that which is abstracted from by consciousness. This way of thinking conflicts with the explicit statement that matter plays the active role and consciousness passively follows after. Thus the ambiguity applies to matter and consciousness in this hierarchy and in this reciprocal relation. There is abstraction from consciousness in so far as, and because, it is the slave of a matter which is the object of abstraction and which drags the consciousness along with it, so to speak, in the wake of the abstraction-process. Similarly, when it is the consciousness that produces the abstraction, this only occurs in the wake of the abstraction-producing matter.
Yet we must not push the contrast to extremes; for the distinction between the predominance of matter and the slavish position of consciousness is continued by their unity. When consciousness becomes the slave of matter, is subjected by and subjects itself to matter (ihr sklavisch unterworfen can mean both), it then brings with it all that it possesses and all its capacities, and matter assumes command over the complete arsenal of consciousness. It therefore conflicts with the grammatical construction to pose the question whether matter is at times able to play an active role and of its own accord produce abstraction; for matter and consciousness are bracketed together. Equally meaningless is the question whether, in the process of abstracting, consciousness does not play the leading role; for the abstraction-process includes the two together: matter and consciousness.
We must single out yet another feature of this cardinal passage. It says of abstraction that it is the negation of morality, understanding and feeling (unsittliche, unverständige und gemütlose). What this means is that where there is abstraction by matter and consciousness together, and where there is abstraction from matter and consciousness together, at the same time—and by definition—there is a process of abstraction from morality, understanding and feeling. The abstraction takes the place of “every natural and mental distinction”; for all differences are obliterated, every distinction is done away with. In the expression “natural and mental” is enshrined a twofold unity of nature and mind, a twofold unity that is embodied in morality, understanding and feeling. They are “natural and mental” functions which for that very reason reflect the diversity contained in nature and mind. This harmony of “nature and mind” is nullified by an abstraction-process in which consciousness becomes the slave of matter. And the rich diversity of “nature and mind” is destroyed in a process in which matter and consciousness are turned into a colourless and soulless abstraction, in which nature and mind are both eliminated; in which morality, understanding and feeling are obliterated. Where the abstraction from matter begins to predominate, the reality of nature, united in harmony with mind, is lost. Where the abstraction from consciousness collaborates in this dictatorship, the reality of mind, united in harmony with nature, is belied.
This Marx now judges to be “reprobate materialism” (verworfene Materialismus). In the adjective “reprobate”, is expressed total condemnation, the absolute negation of the beatus, the “blessed”, in the beatitudes. “Reprobate”, cast away, is the situation of those condemned to hell. Again, this “reprobate materialism” is described as “this sin against the holy spirit”. Once more, as on several earlier occasions, in looking for the superlative that will transcend all relative judgments, Marx reaches for a biblical expression. Just as previously he had described the inviolable and exalted character of the state, the guarantor of justice and humanity, by a comparison with God and Christ, so now he defines its total opposite as the “sin against the holy spirit”. It is, after all, that sin which Jesus said is unforgivable—and is so in distinction from all other sins (Mark 3:29).
Here again, however, there is no trace of any explicit appeal to the Bible. Just as in both the earlier cases the concern was not with God and Christ but with the exalted character of the humane, constitutional state, so now it is not the doctrine of the holy spirit which is under discussion, but the “sense of right and of law” which is the most considerable provincialism of the Rhinelanders. The matter at issue is the “urge to justice”, the “instinct for justice”, which is a natural possession of the impoverished class. That is the “holy spirit of the peoples and of human kind”. This elementary justice and this elementary sense of justice have continued to be preserved in the law of custom, whether in Siberia or in France, in Kamtshatka or in the Rhine province. It is something provincial because it is elementary and concretely human; and so it is universal. It is the holy spirit “of the peoples and of humanity”.
Materialism is the unforgivable desecration and total denial of this spirit in two respects. In the first place, it is a direct consequence of the doctrine that, in the case of a law concerning wood, it behoves the legislator to consider nothing but wood and woodland (bei einem Holzgesetz nur an Holz und Wald zu denken). The sting of this materialism lies in the “nothing but”, in the absolute concentration on this one point, to the exclusion of all other aspects and in disregard of all the connecting lines which intersect at this point. This absolutizing, this abstracting, isolating, is the sin of sins. It is the “abstraction of a particular matter”: wood remains wood as much in Siberia as in France. And the “abstraction of a particular consciousness”, which has become a slave to this particular matter; forested estates are still forested estates in Kamtshatka as in the Rhine province. Such total disregard of every mental and natural distinction, that is the unforgivable sin of materialism, the idolatrous worship of abstraction, a worship which reduces “a particular matter”, a concrete reality, linked by a thousand nerve fibres with the whole of nature and of mind, to an abstraction: wood = matter.
In the second place, materialism is a violation of justice; for it teaches the lawmaker that he has no business to resolve the special material problem on a political basis, that is, within the total context of the rationality and morality of the state. Whilst consciousness becomes a slave to the abstraction of a particular matter, the legislature becomes a slave to the abstraction of a special material problem, a special material task (die einzelne materielle Aufgabe). For the third time in this passage we have the concept of “matter”, on this occasion as an adjective. Wood is indeed matter; and so the problem to be resolved is of a material nature. It has to do, not with wood in general, but with the forests of the Rhineland, which is why it is a specific issue. Furthermore, for the legislator, wood and forest are not simply objects; he is confronted with the problem (Aufgabe) of the particular relation of this concrete wood and of these concrete forests to the concrete people who live in the Rhineland. Those people form a society, a community, which in its turn is organized in the context of a state; and this state makes laws, procures justice. Therefore the lawmaker has a directly political task, namely, the proper ordering of society as a whole. For that reason he must resolve this special material problem within the total context of the rationality and morality of the state (im Zusammenhang mit der ganzen Staatsvernunft und Staatssittlichkeit). If, on the other hand, the legislator isolates a single aspect, if he abstracts the one factor, “private ownership”, from all other factors that have a bearing on the case, he is then deposing justice and is instead kneeling before the abstraction of a concrete matter and the abstraction of a concrete problem.
It must by now be evident that the term “materialism” in this cardinal passage, which represents the first confrontation with “so-called material interests”, belongs to the terminology of Marx's critique. It is pre-eminently a critical term; and in this term the unity of Marx's critique is once again expressed. The critique of religion: materialism is fetish-worship, adoration of the wood-god, the absolutizing of abstract “matter”; it is a sin against the holy spirit. The critique of law: materialism is a total disregard of the rights of the human being, which are sacrificed to a juridical abstraction: ownership. The critique of politics: materialism is the repudiation of the duty assigned to the state of serving the whole of society—a repudiation on behalf of private interest. The critique of economics: materialism attributes to wood, which has an exact, profane, relative value, the surplus value of its owner's individuality; it gives to a relative piece of matter the absolute value of the person.
Hence the adjective in verworfene Materialismus. Materialism is something reprobate, it falls under the judgment, it is the target of criticism. Whatever aspects in Marx's later development may be added and whatever the metamorphoses that may follow in the course of Marxism's further evolution, from now on this basic critical note is always to be sounded in the term “materialism”. Indeed, the persistent sounding of this basic note will enable us to gauge the extent to which the term “materialism” is still connected with the central core of Marx's philosophy. Even in that sense the term is an essentially critical category.
Actually, this passage is not the only one in which the critical implications of the term become evident. In an article dating from the same period entitled, Uber die ständischen Ausschüsse in Preussen, there occurs a passage that expresses a closely parallel train of thought. The ständische Ausschüsse had very recently been set up by King Frederick William IV. They were provincial advisory bodies, elected from the provincial diets to represent the different “estates” of the realm. Following up his articles on the meeting of the Rheinische Landtag, Marx subjected the composition of these advisory bodies to a critical analysis. He demonstrates how fictive they are in character, in that they are supposed to advise the king even on affairs of state. They were brought together for that purpose in a central advisory body which met in Berlin. What new element is it, Marx enquires, that quite suddenly changes those who represent provincial interests into the representatives of state interests, and gives their special activity the character of a general one? It might seem that this new element is simply and solely the common place of meeting. Is purely abstract space, however, able to give a man of character a new character and to bring about a chemical dissolution of his mental and spiritual being? One would be kow-towing to a crudely material mechanism if one were to ascribe an organizing soul purely and simply to a spatial area (man würde dem materiellsten Mechanismus huldigen, wollte man dem blossen Raume eine solche organisierende Seele zumuten). Here then a material mechanism, which ascribes to the abstract unity of space a unifying capacity, is contrasted with the essential nature of the state as a living organism that can be held together only by an “organizing soul”.
This contrast runs like a conspicuous thread through the entire analysis. Marx starts by exposing the contradiction inherent in what was stipulated in respect of these advisory bodies. One condition of membership was that one should have been a landowner for at least ten years consecutively and that one should belong to a Christian church. The two conditions are in conflict anyway; for one would then have to posit a “Christian landholding” besides a “Jewish landholding”—and that is absurd. More serious is the fact that the general stipulation of land ownership clashes with the principle that these bodies are to represent the various classes; for it is only in the case of the peasant farmer that landholding is an essential attribute of his class.
That brings Marx to the central core of his analysis, namely, to the contention that the whole principle of representation on the basis of class distinction is in conflict with the essential nature of the state. With this in view, he appeals to the basic notion of an analogy between the structure of the state and the natural order. Anyone who studies the life of organic nature must perceive there the spirit of a vital unity. Even the elements do not remain separate but are incessantly merging into one another, so that in the living organism every trace of the varying elements completely disappears. Differentiation no longer consists in the discrete existence of the various elements but in the vital activity of the several functions, all infused with one and the same life; so that their distinctness is not something already there, preceding life, but is rather something continuously emerging from life, and likewise continuously vanishing and being merged back into it. Now just as nature does not draw the line at the existing elements, but even on the bottom rung of natural life, in the metereological process, shows this diversity to be a merely sensory phenomenon with no intellectual truth in it, no more can or should the state, this natural kingdom of the mind (dieses natürliche Geisterreich), seek and find its true nature in a given sensory phenomenon. It argues superficiality, therefore, if we seek to explain distinctions of class in terms of a “divine providence”.
The apologetic that would defend representation on the basis of class distinction miscomprehends the nature of the state as a living organism; it is aware only of a number of heterogeneous parts existing side by side and held together by the state in a superficial and mechanical fashion. Anyone who examines the actual character of the Prussian state will discover the actual areas into which the organization of the state is compartmented and within which the whole life and activity of the state are carried on. They are districts, municipalities, provincial governments, military departments and so on, and not the four categories of classes or estates that exist only in the fictitious world of legal instruments and registers. The real differences, which through their intrinsic nature are at every moment being absorbed into the unity of the whole, are free creations, springing from the genius of the Prussian state, and not raw elements imposed on the present by the blind necessity of nature and by the disintegration of a past age.
As the whole principle of representation on the basis of class distinctions is wrong, Marx also attacks the proposal from the liberal side that besides land ownership “intellect” (die Intelligenz) be recognized as a category of representation. That is absurd; for not only is “intellect” or “intelligence” not a special element of representation, but it is no element at all; intelligence is a principle which cannot form part of any composition of elements, but is only able to produce out of itself an organic, articulated structure (Gliederung). We can never speak of intelligence as of an integral part, but only as being, as it were, the organizing soul (organisierenden Seele). Where the political intelligence is concerned, it will control land ownership by the principles of the state instead of letting the law be prescribed by the private egoism of land ownership. Similarly, the clock-maker sets the movement of a timepiece according to the sun, and not the other way round. For the intelligence nothing outward exists; for it is the soul, which defines everything from the inside out. For land ownership, on the contrary, everything is external that exists outside itself.
If a representation of intelligence is to have any meaning, therefore, it must spring from a desire for the intentional representation of the national intelligence, that is to say, of the intelligence which does not seek to uphold special needs over against the state, but whose deepest need it is to validate and make effective the state itself—as its own act, as its own state. To be represented is in the very nature of the case a passive thing: only what is material, spiritless, dependent, threatened, needs a representation; but no element of the state should be material, spiritless, dependent, threatened. The representation should not be envisaged as a representation of this thing or that thing, which is not the nation itself; but it is in point of fact self-representation, state-action, on the part of other forms in which the life of the state expresses itself, only distinguished by the universality of its content. The representation is not to be regarded as a concession to defenceless weakness, to powerlessness, but rather as the conscious vitality of the very peak of energy and strength. In an authentic state there is no landed interest, no industry, no material thing that as a raw, basic element could make a deal with the state. No; in any true state there exist mental and spiritual powers alone; and only in their political resurrection, in their political rebirth, are natural forces, as it were, enfranchised in the state. The state imbues the whole of nature with spiritual and mental nerves; and at every point it must appear that what is in control is not matter but form, not nature minus the state but the state-as-nature, not the unfree object but the free human being.
The term dominieren, which serves to express the absolute sovereignty of form over matter, of mind over nature, of the free subject over the unfree object, of the state as the natural realm of the spirit over sensory nature, is bracketed by Marx with the term kritisieren. Thus he declares that it is not for the landed interest to “criticize and control” (kritisieren und beherrschen) the political intelligence, but vice versa. Thus the critique is that transformation in which the natural forces undergo their “political resurrection” (staatlichen Auferstehung), their “political rebirth” (politischen Wiedergeburt). Therefore he vigorously defends the freedom of the critical press as the most powerful leverage for culture and the spiritual nurture of the people; a critical press converts the material struggle into an ideal struggle, the struggle of flesh and blood into a battle of minds, and that of need, of desire, of empiricism into one of theory, of intelligence, of form.
Once again the trend of Marx's thinking and his terminology—in particular the central position of the ideas of “resurrection” and “rebirth”—remind us naturally enough of biblical theology; and once more the point is made that the state occupies a theological position as the realm of freedom. More specifically there is an inescapable analogy with the dialectic of the natural and the spiritual, as developed by Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15—a dialectic pivoted around the resurrection. It is significant in this context that, in his article on the Rheinische Landtag debates on the freedom of the press, Marx describes the statute book or legal code as “a nation's bible of freedom” (die Freiheitsbibel eines Volkes). Laws are the positive, light, universal norms within which freedom has acquired an impersonal, theoretical existence, independent of individual caprice. That is why preventive laws, especially all legal forms of censorship, conflict with freedom as that is embodied in the law. There are no effectively preventive laws. The law is only preventive as injunction. It begins to operate in fact only when it is infringed; for it is only true law if it incorporates the unconscious natural law of freedom as the considered law of the state (das bewusstlose Naturgesetz der Freiheit bewusstes Staatsgesetz geworden ist). Where the law is real law, that is, the being of freedom, it is man's real existence in freedom. For that reason the laws cannot obviate, cannot pre-vent (prävenieren), a man's actions; for they are, after all, the laws governing man's inner life, the laws of human activity as such, the considered and reflected images of human living. Thus the law retires before the life of man as a life of freedom; and only at the moment when his actual conduct has shown that a man has ceased to obey the natural law of freedom does the law as state law compel him to be free; just as physical laws only confront me as an alien force if and when my life has ceased to be the life of these laws, in other words, when it has become sick. Censorship is based on the view that disease is the normal situation or that the normal situation, freedom, is a disease.
In the law of the state, therefore, unconscious matter acquires a conscious form, and the unconscious natural law of freedom is brought to consciousness; it is the conscious reflection of man's mode of life. That is why Marx resists every attempt to subjugate this essential principle of freedom intrinsic to the nature of the state, more especially to one or another religious principle. Every given sphere of freedom is the freedom of this or that particular sphere, just as any given mode of life is that of a particular nature. How perverse would it be of the lion to insist on conducting himself by the laws of life proper to the polyp? How wrong would I be about the cohesion and unity of the physical organism, were I to conclude that because the arms and legs are active in their way, therefore the eye and ear—those organs which wrest from a human being his individuality and make him a reflection and echo of the universe—must have an even greater right to activity, to an activity in which the activity of arms and legs is raised to a higher power (potenziert)? Just as in the cosmic system each separate planet simply revolves around the sun, whilst at the same time turning on its own axis, so in the system of freedom each of its worlds revolves only about the central sun of freedom, whilst at the same time circling around itself.
Elsewhere (Der Leitende Artikel in Mr. 179 der Kölnische Zeitung, summer of 1842) Marx deploys this idea as a weapon against meddling by religion in matters of state, and to combat the idea of a Christian state. The state cannot be a construct of religion, but can only be constructed on the basis of the rationality of freedom (aus der Vernunft der Freiheit). That is the task of philosophy. Philosophy, after all, has done nothing in the realm of politics that physics, medicine, each and every science, has not done in its own sphere. Francis Bacon declared theological physics to be a vestal virgin, barren and unfruitful. He emancipated physics from theology, and lo! it bore fruit. Just as you do not ask the doctor whether he believes, no more do you have to ask the politician. Round about the time of Copernicus' great discovery of the real solar system, the law of gravity governing the state was discovered as well; its gravity was found to be in itself. Just as the various governments of Europe, with the prime casualness of accepted practice, tried to apply this result to the balance-of-power system between states, so had Machiavelli and Campanella earlier, and later Hobbes, Spinoza, Hugo Grotius and others up to Rousseau, Fichte and Hegel, begun to develop the state from reason (Vernunft) and experience, not from theology; as Copernicus declined to take seriously the idea that Joshua stopped the sun at Gideon and the moon in the valley of Ajalon. The latest philosophy had only continued to build on what had already been begun by Heraclitus and Aristotle. For that matter, we have to remember that the Prussian system of law was a product of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Code, not of the Old Testament but of the school of Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet, Mirabeau, Montesquieu and of the French Revolution.
However, for earlier thinkers in the area of constitutional law, the state was a construction based on the human passions, on ambition or the need for sociability; in so far as they constructed the state from reason (Vernunft), it was the reason of the individual and not that of society. The more ideally orientated and more fundamental notion provided by the most recent philosophy, on the other hand, construed the state in terms of the idea of the whole (aus der Idee des Ganzen). It envisages the state as the mighty organism in which juridical, moral and political freedom has to be realized, and in which the individual citizen, in obeying the laws of the state, is merely obeying the natural laws of his own reason, of human reason.
The analogy between the state and nature and the idea of the state order as a spiritual order within the natural realm, is likewise to be found in Marx's critique of the proposals for a new divorce law. This project the Prussian government kept strictly secret—which did not prevent the Rheinische Zeitung from publishing it in the autumn of 1842. The editors' refusal to name the person who had handed them the text of the draft legislation was one of the reasons which in the following year led to the banning of that paper. The publication of the proposals touched off a lengthy public discussion in which Marx as the editor involved himself by contributing several articles.
True to his method, he subjected both the proposed legislation itself and the criticism of it voiced by its opponents to a critique of his own, and tried to push through from empiricism to theory, from the outer surface to the inner logic of the issue. His critique is based primarily on two objections. The first one concerns the half-heartedness of this attempt at reform, which in fact turns out to be an obscure and dissembling revision: the Prussian Domestic Code of 1794, dominated as it is by a feudal structure, is left unaffected and still functions as the basis. It may well be true that no legislation can decree moral behaviour; but still less can it legalize immorality. The Prussian Domestic Code rests on an intellective abstraction (Verstandsabstraktion) which, having no substance in itself, took over a natural, juridical and moral susbtance as so much external and in itself lawless matter (aüsserliche, in sich selbst gesetzlose Materie) and then tried to mould this spiritless and lawless matter (geist-und gesetzlose Materie) to an extrinsic goal. This antiquated legal system treats the objective world not on the basis of the laws inherent in it but of certain capricious, subjective considerations and of a plan that has no essential relation with the business at all.
The second fundamental objection that Marx adduces against the proposed divorce law has to do with the failure to understand the secular character of marriage. The proposals treat of marriage, not as a moral, but as a religious and ecclesial institution. The critics are indeed opposed to the way in which the scheme involves religion in the affairs of the law; but they themselves halt between two opinions and omit to say whether the essential nature of marriage is religious or not. In a sense the legislature is logically consistent; for it subjects marriage to the authority of the church. In point of fact, it sees the essence of marriage not as human morality but as spiritual sanctity. It sets the power of a higher authority in the place of autonomy; a supernatural sanction in the place of a natural hallowing from within; a passive obedience to commands that stand over and above the nature of the marriage relationship in the place of a loyal conformity to the nature of that relationship. Is it not self-evident, then, that the legislature is putting secular marriage beneath the supreme control of the religious authorities?
The critics, on the other hand, are trammelled with a divided viewpoint. In it, conscience is divorced from the sense of justice, the world of law from the world of the mind and spirit, so that a gap is created between law and spirit, between jurisprudence and philosophy. They adopt a eudaemonistic standpoint, having in view only the happiness of the two partners to marriage, which they regard as being threatened by the legal indissolubility of marriage. As opposed to that, Marx bases his critique on the standpoint of the philosophy of law. Marriage is not just a matter between two people but of the whole family; and every divorce is at the same time a division of families. The philosophy of law looks not only to the individual intention of two private persons and does not permit the arbitrary will of the marriage partners to prescribe the law; but it takes as a yardstick the intention of marriage, the moral substance of this relationship. The law-maker has to regard himself as a student of nature. He does not make the laws, he does not invent the laws, but simply formulates them, makes it possible for the intrinsic laws of spiritual relationships to come to expression in conscious, positive laws (er spricht die innern Gesetze geistiger Verhältnisse in bewussten positiven Gesetzen aus).
Nobody is obliged to enter into marriage; but anyone, as soon as he has done so, must be obliged to pledge himself to obedience to the laws of marriage. The person who gets married does not make marriage, does not invent it, any more than a swimmer invents the nature and the laws of water and of gravity. Marriage cannot be centred, therefore, in his caprice, but his caprice has to adapt itself to marriage. Whoever arbitrarily abrogates marriage is saying in effect: the arbitrary, the lawless, is the law of marriage; for no reasonable person (Vernünftiger) will presume to regard his own actions as privileged actions, as actions permitted to him alone; he will rather declare those actions that are permitted to all to be legal actions.
With this, Marx comes to a crucial point of his critical analysis, nay, to a critical point of his whole philosophy of law. At this critical point he finds himself in conflict, therefore, with Hegel's philosophy of law. In the Grundliniën der Philosophie des Rechts Hegel says: marriage is in essence indissoluble, but only in so far as it is viewed in terms of the pure concept of marriage, its essential nature (An sick, dem Begriffe nach, sie die Ehe untrennbar, aber nur an sick, d.h. nur ihrem Begriffe nach). Marx does not try to counter this proposition; but he shows on the contrary just how platitudinous Hegel's utterance is. Indeed, it does not say anything specific about marriage at all. All moral relations are in essence (ihrem Begriffe nach) indestructible. A true state, a true marriage, a true friendship are indestructible; but no marriage, state, or friendship corresponds entirely to its essential character. Just as an actual friendship even within the family, and an actual state in world history, is destructible, so is an actual marriage in the state. No moral existence whatever tallies with its essence, at any rate not as of necessity.
Now, just as in nature destruction and death appear as a matter of course wherever an existence has altogether ceased to answer to its destined purpose, and just as world history decides whether a state has become so much the opposite of the idea of the state that it has no further claim to continued existence, so does the state decide under what conditions an existing marriage has ceased to be a marriage. The divorce is nothing other than a declaration that this or that marriage is a deceased marriage, the existence of which is a mere fraud and delusion. It speaks for itself that neither the arbitrary will of the legislature nor that of private persons, but only the essential nature of the thing itself can determine whether a marriage has died or not; for it is common knowledge that a certificate of death is based on the fact and not on the desires of the interested parties. If, however, in the case of physical death one looks for totally convincing proofs, must it not then be required of the legislature that it register the occurrence of a moral death only as a result of the most unmistakable symptoms, since it is not merely its right but also its duty—the duty, that is, of self-preservation—to guard and protect the life of moral relationships.
There can be no guarantee that the conditions under which the existence of a moral relationship ceases to tally with its essence have been accurately established at the level of science and of the general understanding and not in accordance with this or that prejudice unless the law is the considered expression of the popular will, in other words, has been brought about with and through that popular will. The law is then the expression of a deliberate submission to moral-cum-natural powers—the opposite of the contemptuous material posture whose only concern is with the caprice of the marriage partners, the opposite too of that disdainful idealism which recognizes only a mindless obedience to an authority above morality and nature.
Thus Marx's critique of the divorce legislation, based on the philosophy of law, steers a true course between the Scylla of materialism and the Charybdis of idealism. The key idea in it is the term “moral existence” (sittliche Existenz). In its moral essence marriage is indissoluble, but in its moral existence it is dissoluble. The contradiction between essence and existence is death. We have already been able to follow the trail to this crucial idea in Marx's reflections on the nature of freedom as the spiritual order of the state organism and of unfreedom as a symptom of disease, whereby the organism no longer responds to its true nature. This train of thought is now radicalized into the absolute contrast between an existence and its essence, a contrast that manifests itself as death.
The analogy between the order of nature and the spiritual order of the state is still preserved; but now a third concept, a middle term, is inserted between them: world history. The true state and true marriage are imperishable, because the idea is eternal; but the actual state and the actual marriage exist in time, they exist in history. The point at which nature and history meet is death, the fact of death. Death is not a fact of nature, in so far as it is in conflict with the idea of the natural order as a living organism. Even at the natural level, therefore, death is the expression of an inner contradiction, that is, of the contrariety existing between existence and essence, between existence (Existenz) and relevance to a destined purpose. In nature, death simply occurs as a manifestation of this contradiction; but, at the mental and spiritual level, death is the consequence of a considered decision. World history determines whether the actual existence of the state still answers to its essential nature; and the state is dissolved, disintegrated, the moment there is nothing of that correspondence left. Just as world history records the death of a state and issues a death certificate, so does the state determine whether a marriage has died and is in fact therefore already dissolved. The conditions are laid down in the law; and the guarantee that these conditions are really being met is then present, if the law is the considered expression of the popular will. Even that, however, is impermanent; for the state is in turn a mortal organism, whose death is declared and certified by world history.
Marx's critique of the Prussian state is really rather like the critical diagnosis made by the doctor who declares from the symptoms of disease and, if they are present, from the unmistakable symptoms of death, that the actual existence of the organism under scrutiny no longer answers to its essential nature and purpose as a living organism. The question of who gives the doctor the authority to utter such a diagnosis or, to put it even more basically, the question who is really doctor and who is patient, Marx answers by appealing to the onward-going course of history. His basic argument for the complete freedom of the press is founded on the perception that there is no body, no court of appeal, competent to authorize this, and that precisely for that reason freedom of criticism ought to exist. He reminds us of the lessons to be learnt from church history and from the history of science and philosophy. Thus Kant would never have allowed that Fichte had a claim to be a philosopher, Ptolemy that Copernicus was an astronomer, Bernard of Clairvaux that Luther had any title to be called a theologian. Every scholar sees his critics as being so many “unqualified writers”. Or must it be left to the unlearned to decide who is a competent scholar? We are bound, apparently, to leave the verdict to unqualified writers; for those who are qualified can hardly be judged in their own cause. Or should competency and authority be linked to a particular class? The shoemaker, Jacob Boehme, was a great philosopher. Many a philosopher of reputation is no more than a big shoemaker.
The progressive, critical process whereby history is continually subjecting itself to criticism and registering the contradiction between factual existence and idea involves the need to make new laws for regulating situations not provided for in the existing laws. That is the truly historical notion of things, as opposed to the imaginary one, which silences the reason manifesting itself in history (Vernunft der Geschichte) in order to devote to its bones the worship properly given to the relics of history.
On January 19, 1843, silence was imposed on Marx's critical activities by the Prussian government's decree banning the Rheinische Zeitung as from April 1, and for the interim period putting the paper under very stringent censorship. The shareholders addressed a long-winded apology to king and government. To the allegations expressed in the governmental decree, Marx appended some marginal comments of his own. Once again he makes an appeal to the critical progress of history. A given trend is not immediately reprehensible because the government has declared it to be so. The astronomical system of Copernicus was not only declared to be disreputable but was actually repudiated by the highest authority of the time. The imputation that the Rheinische Zeitung had been intending to launch a deliberate attack, and a fundamental attack, on the Prussian constitution Marx rebuts by recalling that as regards the foundation of the constitution there was a very great diversity of viewpoint. In his own lifetime Hegel believed he had laid down the basis of the Prussian constitution in his Philosophy of Law, and the government and the German public believed so too. The government demonstrated this, for instance, through the official propagation of Hegel's writings; the public, conversely, by accusing Hegel of having become the philosopher of the Prussian state. What at one time Hegel had believed is nowadays the belief of the philosopher of law, Friedrich Julius Stahl. In 1831, the year of his death, Hegel lectured in the philosophy of law by special command of the government. In 1830 the official Gazette declared Prussia to be a monarchy surrounded by republican institutions. It now pronounced Prussia to be a monarchy surrounded by Christian institutions. With such a great diversity of opinion regarding the Prussian constitution and its basis, it would seem no more than natural that the Rheinische Zeitung should have its opinion too: one that admittedly may differ from the interpretation favoured by the government at the moment, but that can nonetheless adduce as highly authoritative both Prussian history and many elements now current in the life of the state.
The charge of undermining the principle of monarchy Marx counters with the remark that the Rheinische Zeitung has never shown any predilection for a particular form of state. Its only starting-point was a moral and rational commonwealth (sittliches und vernünftiges Gemeinwesen); and it set store by the monarchy only in so far as that is the embodiment of principles which ought to be realized under any form of state.
The accusation that his paper was bent on stirring up dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs in the field of legislation Marx parries by pointing out that the government shows its own discontent by, for example, pressing for the revision of the divorce laws. Any development in the legislative field is impossible without development of the laws; a development of the laws is not possible without criticism of the laws; any criticism of the laws must engender some discord between the laws as they exist and the heart and mind of the citizen; this discord will present itself as dissatisfaction. The logical conclusion is that loyal participation by the press in the growth of the state is not feasible unless the press is permitted to arouse dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs.
Finally, as regards religion, so runs Marx's sarcastic comment, his paper has acted in complete conformity with the censorship law of 1819, by opposing a fanaticism that carries the verities of religion into politics and so gives rise to confused thinking; in other words, by opposing precisely those actions which the censorship is meant to combat.
Marx said in a letter to Ruge that he saw the banning of the Rheinische Zeitung as an advance of political awareness. Moreover, he had found the atmosphere becoming stuffy and unbearable, and had had enough of slaving away, even on behalf of freedom, and of being obliged to fight with needles instead of rifle-butts. “So the government has restored me to freedom… I can do nothing more in Germany. People here are self-deceived.”
When the shareholders' meeting began to make efforts, by softening the hostile tack, to have the ban lifted, Marx decided not to wait for the crucial date; and some weeks before that, in the middle of March, he resigned.
In the 1859 preface to the Kritik der politischen Ökonomie he says of his voluntary resignation that the shareholders' illusion that they might be able to get the death-sentence on the paper rescinded gave him a welcome opportunity to withdraw from the public scene to the quiet of his study. “The first task,” he goes on, “which I undertook in order to offset the doubts that assailed me was a revision of Hegel's Philosophy of Law; and the Introduction to that was published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbüchern, brought out in Paris in 1844. My studies led me to the conclusion that like forms of state legal relations (Rechtsverhältnisse) are neither self-explanatory nor to be understood in terms of the so called universal development of the human mind, but rather are rooted in the material circumstances of life (materiellen Lebensverhältnissen), the totality of which, in the wake of the English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, Hegel sums up in the phrase ‘civil society’ (bürgerliche Gesellschaft); but that the anatomy of civil society has to be looked for in political economy.”
We shall have to return to this passage yet more frequently; for it sums up in a single sentence the successive stages of Marx's route to the Critique of Political Economy. Now we are concerned only with the first part of the passage. It expresses first of all a negative conclusion: namely, that legal relations and forms of state are not self-explanatory and cannot be understood, either, in terms of the so-called universal development of the human mind. The positive conclusion connects up with that: these relations and forms are rooted rather in the material circumstances of fife which are defined as “civil society”.
For an understanding of this negative-positive conclusion we do best to refer back to three passages already discussed. We take as our starting-point the passage where Marx comes into line with the most recent philosophy of constitutional law, which regards the state as the main organism in which juridical, moral and political freedom ought to be realized and in which the individual citizen, in obeying the laws of the state, is merely obeying the natural laws of his own human reason. The problems raised by this way of putting it revolve around the terms “organism” and “be realized” (Verwirklichung erhalten). After all, if this philosophical view did indeed correspond to reality, and the state were indeed such an organism, then legal relations and forms of state would certainly “be self-explanatory”. The development of Marx's thinking, which we have been following in his articles of 1842 and early 1843, involves no break at all with this constitutional philosophy. On the contrary, the basic idea of an analogy between natural order and state order is also the basis of his critique of religion on the one hand and of “reprobate materialism” and “eudaemonism” on the other; for both run counter to nature. Religion disrupts the spiritual-cum-natural order of the state with supernatural factors; materialism upsets its spiritual character through a blind empiricism, consciousless matter. The turning-point in Marx's development does not lie, therefore, in any departure from this philosophy of constitutional law but in a confrontation with the problem of its “realization” (Verwirklichung). Marx has discovered that there is a yawning gulf between the idea of this state-organism and the ideal of the realization of freedom; and the doubts that assail him arise from the question if and how that gulf can be bridged. As a journalist he is brought rudely face to face with this problem by the conflict with the Prussian state, which has eventually persuaded him that there would seem to be simply no place in Germany for his critique. The substance of that critique is enshrined in two passages.
The first forms part of the critique of the legislation against wood-stealing. The existence (Dasein) of the poor as a class is up to this point simply a custom of civil society, which has not so far found an adequate place in the framework of the conscious organization of the state (Staatsgliederung). This expression “has not so far found an adequate place” (noch keine angemessene Stelle gefunden hat), is a weak formulation of the earlier statement that this class “occupies the same place in civil society as does the dead and fallen wood in the living nature of the forest”. The poor as a class are so much dead wood. Within the “large organism” of the state there is no place for this dead wood, it simply falls outside it. Between the two yawns the gulf which in nature separates living material from dead. The stark fact of the existence of the impoverished class has confronted Marx with the so far unbridgeable contrast between the idea of the state as an all-embracing organism and the ideal of its realization. Just as in natural science a crisis regarding basic assumptions arises the moment research comes up against observed evidence which can have “no adequate place” within the model of nature being used for the investigation, so is Marx's thinking overwhelmed by fundamental doubt now that he is up against a category of people which fits not at all into the model of the state organism.
The second passage indicates how by a quite different route Marx comes to stand before precisely the same gulf. Analysing a draft divorce law, he concludes that all moral relations are indeed indissoluble in essence and in truth (ihrem Begriffe nach), but that both the actual state in world history and actual marriage in the state are most certainly dissoluble. This is another way of stating the conclusion that legal relations and forms of state are not “self-explanatory” (aus sick selbst zu begreifen). The point at which the “concept” (Begriff) is no longer adequate to make these relations and these forms “explanatory”, conceivable (zu begreifen) is the moment at which “an existence (Dasein) has ceased altogether to answer to its destined purpose” (seiner Bestimmung durchaus nicht mehr entspricht). In nature, that is death: the dead branches that the storm has wrenched off or that have been hacked from the felled tree and thrown away as useless. In civil society, that point is the “existence of the poor class as such” (das Dasein der armen Klasse selbst): it no longer answers to its purpose, it is dead wood, severed from the living organism. In the state, that point is the dissolution (Auflösung) of marriage: a “severed” marriage is contradictory of the “idea”, the “concept” of marriage, it is the negation of a relation which as a legal relation is “conceivable”, comprehensible “in and of itself”. It is the same in the end with the forms of state that belong to the past and whose existence is in conflict with their “idea”: like dead wood and poverty they are a dead existence; like a dissolved marriage they have become the negation of their “idea”, their “concept”, and are therefore no longer “conceivable”, comprehensible “in terms of themselves”. Their moral existence has died.
Thus death, whether natural or moral, is the crucial contradiction that prevents us from comprehending natural and moral existence from its “idea”, from its essence and its truth, “in terms of itself”. Death brings the definitive separation between truth and reality; it is the point at which reality has become untrue and truth unreal. A deceased marriage is a marriage “whose existence is a mere fraud and delusion” (deren Existenz nur Schein und Trug ist). Similarly, the impoverished class form a category of citizens whose citizenship is mere fraud and delusion. Likewise, a state which in its reality is the negation of its truth is just a sham state: “I can do nothing more in Germany. People here are self-deceived.”
We have now been able to explain the negative conclusion to which Marx had come in rather more detail, using his own words. That also applies to the addition that legal relations and forms of state are not to be comprehended “in terms of the so called universal development of the human mind” (aus der sogenannten allgemeinen Entwicklung des menschlichen Geistes). Death, after all, is the definitive end of development; death makes it manifest that an existence is separated from its allotted purpose, that it has ceased to develop in the direction of its intended goal; in death an existence resolves itself, is dissolved (aufgelöst). Nature changes from living organism into dead, passive, mechanistic matter which cannot be understood at all in terms of the “idea” of the organism. The spiritual organism of the state ceases to develop further in accordance with the general purpose and end of the human mind, evolution has become devolution, the dead form of the state is an item of spiritless matter, now totally incomprehensible in terms of the “idea” of the spiritual organism. But it applies also to world history as an expression of “the universal development of the human mind”. A deceased form of state lies under the judgment of world history, sentence of death has been pronounced upon it; its dead existence is no longer comprehensible in the least from the living development of world history.
Now that we have managed to account for Marx's negative conclusion, can we likewise explain its positive complement? Legal relations and forms of state are not comprehensible in terms of themselves, that is to say, the fact of their dissolution, of their negation, is not to be understood by this means. How then are they to be understood? Apparently, at any rate, in a way not accordant with their “idea”. They have to be understood by reference to something else, something foreign to their nature. To put it another way: because they can themselves be the negation of their nature, because “no moral existence necessarily corresponds to its essential nature” (keine sittliche Existenz entspricht, oder muss wenigstens nicht ihrem Wesen entsprechen), therefore they have to be interpreted in terms of the negation of their nature.
Now we must attend closely to Marx's choice of expression. The positive part of his conclusion does not say that legal relations and forms of state can of course be understood on the basis of the material circumstances of life; he says only that they are rooted therein (vielmehr in den materiellen Lebensverhältnissen wurzeln). Let us first analyse the phrase “material circumstances of life”. We have already become familiar with the term “material” in the context of Marx's various writings of this period; and without exception the term turned out to have a negative implication vis-à-vis organic nature as well as the spiritual organism. Matter is unconscious, mindless, passive, mechanistic. Purely “material” is the dead organism which has disintegrated into lifeless elements, has become a simply material substance. Even so, Marx speaks quite explicitly of “material circumstances of life”. Here we seem to encounter a contradiction in terms. Indeed, we must go one step further and ask ourselves whether perhaps this terminological contradiction adequately expresses a real contradiction. The contradiction is the fact of death. The actual fact that dead legal relations and deceased forms of state do exist is not to be understood in terms of the “idea” of life; but it is essentially bound up with the further reality that there are “material circumstances of life”, that is, circumstances of life that have come to be “matter”, that are deceased. This interrelation is a hidden one; for what is visible is the “fraud and delusion” of the dead existence which still persists as a living organism, whilst in reality it is already a living corpse. This hidden connection is expressed in the phrase “are rooted” (wurzeln). The root of a tree or plant eludes the eye, one sees only the trunk or stem, the leaves and the fruit. One cannot examine the root, either; for to do that one would have to dig it up and so destroy the living organism. If the root is diseased, then the plant may still flourish for a time; but it is a kind of sham life. If we want to prove that the plant is doomed to death, however, we shall have to expose the root, unless we wait quietly for the leaves to die off and so reveal what in concealment was already a fact.
Now Marx does not assert that legal relations and forms of state are to be understood by reference to the material circumstances of life that together go by the name of “civil society”. He says only that those relations and forms are rooted therein.
Does this mean that one must abandon any form of “notion”, of “idea”? No; the sentence is not yet finished, it moves straight on into a third clause which starts with a “however”. This third part stands in contrast to the second: “however, the anatomy of civil society must be looked for in political economy” (dass aber die Anatomie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft in der politischen Ökonomie zu suchen sei). Anatomy is, literally, cutting asunder, cutting into the constituent pieces, analysing, splitting into atoms, resolving. The anatomist's dissecting knife really does the same thing that is achieved by the process of dissolution set going by death. The perfect anatomy of the living organism is the pathological anatomy, the autopsy, the postmortem. Anatomy can be applied adequately only to the dead organism. In order to be able to dissect the root one has to put paid to the life.
The third clause, then, looks back to the first one, which posits the incomprehensible character of legal relations and forms of state on the basis of their “idea”. The second clause explains that the root of these incomprehensible relations and forms lies in the material circumstances of life of civil society. The third clause answers the question how this hidden interconnection can ever be brought to light: by anatomy. It is the scalpel of the critique of political economy that penetrates to the root and determines accurately whether the living organism (the “circumstances of life”) of civil society is really alive or whether it is only leading a sham life, a life marked off for death. Only exposure of the root makes it possible to provide exact evidence. How difficult and protracted a task this anatomy entails is expressed in the verbal phrase “must be looked for” (zu suchen sei).
The critical exploration that awaited him and was to be his life's work was at the same time the long and arduous road to self-liberation from the doubt that had assailed him. A critical revision of Hegel's Philosophy of Law was the first step in that direction. The doubt that had affected him from his first encounter with Hegel's thought is whipped up into a storm. We have to interpret the word “doubt” in its original sense of a duality, an inner dividedness, a being at variance with oneself. Indeed the remarkable ambivalence that we noticed earlier is a striking feature of the articles belonging to this period. On the one hand, Hegel is complimented as the great philosopher of constitutional law, in the tradition that runs from Machiavelli via Hugo Grotius and Rousseau to the nineteenth century; the upholder of true philosophy which has emancipated itself from theology, has discovered the “law of gravity” of the state, contemplates the state with a human vision and unfolds the natural laws of the state from reason and experience. On the other hand, Hegel is subjected to a radical critique. He is reproached with having wanted to subsume concrete problems of morality and law under universal concepts, which admittedly define the truth, but contribute nothing to an understanding of concrete reality. If that would appear to be a purely philosophical criticism, a second charge is of a far more serious nature, not least because of the context in which it is set. The remark, inserted almost en passant, that in 1831 Hegel taught the philosophy of law by special behest of the government, forms part of Marx's last act as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, his critical analysis of the ban imposed by the government, appended to an official letter to that government. To the philosophical doubt felt by the disciple concerning the master a political misgiving is added also; and the barb pierces deep into the flesh. The parting with a journalistic career, the parting with Germany, the parting with the Prussian state, is at the same time a parting with Hegel. The special mention of the date, 1831, acquires an extra and peculiar value in the light of the situation. It was the year of Hegel's death. We may recall how Marx drew an analogy between natural death and moral death. In nature, death is the manifestation of the contradiction between existence and appropriate end or use; but a similar contradiction also becomes manifest in moral death. By special command of the government Hegel taught the philosophy of law in the year of his death. Was it also the year when his philosophy died; and was the governmental instruction which enthroned him as the state philosopher actually a sentence of death passed upon his philosophy of state law? Eleven years afterwards, by special order of the government, silence was imposed on Marx's critique and the death sentence of the Rheinische Zeitung was signed. Yet what the government regarded as a finale the victim felt to be a step forward in political awareness. In the light of this conflicting analogy the critical revision of Hegel's Philosophy of Law, in pursuit of which he had withdrawn from the public stage into the seclusion of the study, assumes a singular perspective. Only a radical critique and a fundamental revision are able to resurrect Hegel's philosophy from a philosophical death.