The migration from the old Athens threatened with destruction and the founding of a new Athens upon a new element, the sea, was not a theoretical question. There was something prophetic about the fact that, when it came to putting philosophy into practice, Marx finally referred to the example of a politician, Themistocles. The proper realm for the enactment of ideas which philosophy had prepared in a theoretical fashion was the political realm. He had embodied this truth in the psychological law that the theoretical spirit, having become free within itself, is transformed into practical energy and, appearing as will from Amenthes’ shadowy realm, turns against the earthly reality existing apart from it. The empirical basis for the construction of this psychological law lay nowhere else than in his own mind, not in the sense of an inference from past experiences but solely as a prospect for the future; this psychological “law” he had to demonstrate in person, even to the extent of embodying it in his own life.
It was one thing to proclaim Epicurus the greatest Greek representative of Enlightenment, and quite another to become oneself a modern Epicurus. If post-Aristotelian philosophy had represented the end of Greek religion, the task now lying ahead was to show post-Hegelian philosophy to be the end of the Christian religion. However, the language of this new philosophy had still to be deciphered. The end of Greek philosophy had been pregnant with the Titanic struggles of the Roman era; it had achieved the final chord, but had failed to provide at least the rough draft of a new score. The Christian era had only served to accentuate the dilemma, since Christianity, so far from being the solution, was rather the problem to be solved. Despite his merits, Epicurus had failed to adumbrate any solution for that problem. In the first place his practical atheism had been at odds with his own philosophical presuppositions, so that a modern opposition to the Christian religion could only look in vain to antiquity for a theoretical model. Furthermore, rejecting the adoration accorded to the visible heaven was a far cry from rebellion against the written Word, the tyranny of the “written heaven”. The latter was tantamount to the transition to a new dimension, the realm of the spirit.
Before we try to follow the succession of Marx's steps as explorer of a new element, we must attend to some rudimentary biographical notes. The migration from the old Athens was inextricably linked up with his practical experiences and decisions. The transformation of the theoretical spirit into practical energy left its indelible mark on his personal relationships with his environment, just as, conversely, the external situation influenced his inner transformation. It is impossible to disentangle Marx's philosophy from his practical decisions in the public realm.
The dissertation itself, to be sure, was related to the political situation. In my fourth lecture I indicated the political reasons that induced Marx to leave Berlin and take his doctor's degree at a smaller university. I need recall here only one of the measures taken by the new Minister of Cult against the influence of the Young Hegelian philosophy. I mean, the appointment of the philosopher von Schelling to the University of Berlin. A prominent representative of German idealist philosophy, Schelling had passed through several stages of development until, towards the end of his career, he was advocating a mystical vein of thought in virtue of which philosophy was crowned with a theosophical concept of revelation. A corollary of his philosophical standpoint was his unmistakable political conservatism. The combination of these two things was enough to make Schelling a chief antagonist of the Young Hegelian circle.
The reaction of the Young Hegelian students can be studied in two articles and two pamphlets, written by Friedrich Engels, who was living in Berlin during that period, and was following Schelling's lectures. The first pamphlet was called Schelling and Revelation. Critique of the latest reactionary attacks on free philosophy. The second pamphlet was Schelling, the philosopher in Christo or the elevation of worldly wisdom to divine wisdom. Both pamphlets were published pseudonymously in 1842. The two articles, written in December 1841, give a vivid account of Schelling's lectures. Engels declares total war on Schelling in defence of Hegel's legacy, preserved by the Young Hegelian school. Although fighting now as an ecclesia pressa, an oppressed church, the true philosophy of self-consciousness will eventually win the great, decisive battle which is near at hand.
In the Appendix to his dissertation, Marx had launched a sharp attack on Schelling, recalling how enlightened the younger Schelling's thinking had been in 1795, and how glaring was the contrast afforded by his reactionary gnosticism in 1841. The years that followed did nothing to lessen his hostility. In a letter to Ludwig Feuerbach, written in October 1843 shortly before his leaving for Paris, Marx encourages Feuerbach to compose an attack on Schelling, to be published in Paris. He reminds Feuerbach of Schelling's political power as a member of the German federal council and as a favourite protégé of the Prussian government. The whole German police force is at Schelling's disposal, so that any hostile pamphlet published in Germany will immediately be subject to censorship. “Schelling has not only been able to conjoin philosophy with theology, but philosophy and diplomacy as well. An attack on Schelling is thus an indirect attack on our politics in general and on Prussian politics in particular. Schelling's philosophy is Prussian politics sub specie philosophiae.”
Marx goes on to hail Feuerbach as the exact opposite of Schelling. It is in this passage that he uses for the first time the term “opium”. For the realization of the honest ideas of his youth Schelling had “no other means but imagination, no other energy but vanity, no other motive force but opium, no other organ but an irritable and effeminate receptivity”. In him those ideas had always remained a fantastic youthful dream, but in Feuerbach they had become truth, reality and had attained manly stature. “Schelling is therefore your anticipated phantom (antizipiertes Lerrbild) and no sooner does reality confront its phantom than the latter must evaporate in a thick mist.” Marx regarded Feuerbach as the necessary and natural opponent of Schelling, appointed by the twin powers of nature and history. “Your battle with Schelling is the battle between imagined philosophy and philosophy itself.”
The attacks levelled independently by Engels and Marx in the period before they became close comrades derived their bitter character from the political sting hidden within the philosophical antagonism. When Marx decided to leave Berlin, he realized that this would entail the end of the academic career he had hoped for. He would have to choose a profession other than the one which his father had had in mind for him and which seemed to be in line with his evident intellectual ability. His experience could not but strengthen his conviction that defence of the established Christian religion by a semi-feudal monarchy was very much the same thing as suppression of intellectual freedom. Christianity and political reaction had proved to be twin brothers.
Switching from a career as academic philosopher to a new role as pressman meant that Marx was now acting on his own proposition about the necessary transition from theoretical thought to practical effort. That was in fact how he was inclined to interpret his personal experiences. Just as in earlier writings he had, as a matter of course, drawn a parallel between key points in world history and key points in his own life, so now he interpreted his change of occupation as a change consummated in the heart of philosophy itself. His reflections were embodied in an article published in the Rheinische Zeitung in the middle of 1842. The article was aimed at another newspaper, the Kölnische Zeitung, mouthpiece of the ultramontanists in the Rhineland. This newspaper had accused the Rheinische Zeitung, which had the support of the progressive middle-class opposition in the Rhineland, of propagating anti-Christian ideas. Inveighing against such a dangerous tendency, the Kölnische Zeitung had at the same time appealed for stricter censorship on the part of the government.
In his reply, Marx deployed several of the arguments already hinted at in his dissertation. The editor of the Kölnische Zeitung happened to be called Hermes. This fact gave Marx's ironic pen occasion to compare the politico-religious conservatism of his opponent with the servility of the Greek god Hermes. We may remember that in the preface to the dissertation Marx replied to those who were rejoicing over the apparently deteriorating social position of philosophy with a quotation from Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound. The quotation referred to Prometheus’ retort to Hermes, the messenger of the gods, that he would rather remain the servant of the rock to which he was chained than become the submissive servant of the gods. I have already pointed out the ambiguity of the Greek word for “servitude”, which has both a religious and a social reference.
There was an added element of irony in the fact that, in his reply to Herr Hermes, Marx did not quote from Aeschylus’ tragedy but from Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods. Lucian was an outstanding Greek satirical writer of the second century. As an atheist he made a point of ridiculing various religious and philosophical ideas current in the decadent period of antiquity, especially the concepts of Christianity. The full implications of this irony are obvious from a passage in an essay written less than two years later, the Introduction to a critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law. In that passage Marx exposes the anachronistic character of the contemporary German régime: “The modern ancien régime is only the jester of a world order whose true heroes are dead. History is meticulous and goes through many phases when carrying an old form to the grave. The last phase of a historical form is its comic aspect. The gods of Greece, already tragically and mortally wounded in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, had to die over again a comic death in Lucian's Dialogues. Why does history pursue such a course? So that humanity should part gaily with its past. This gay historical destiny is what we must advance in vindication of the political authorities in Germany.”
Marx in fact introduces his reply to Hermes, the editor of the Kölnische Zeitung, with a quotation from Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods. The god Hermes complains of the multitude of affairs he has to attend to and the many slavish duties he has to take on. He, who is distracted by so many matters, must over and above all these attend to the whole business of the dead. This quotation serves to introduce Marx's discussion with Hermes about the proposition put forward by the latter that to spread philosophical and religious views by means of newspapers or to combat them in newspapers is equally inadmissible. Marx concludes that his opponent is advocating a further tightening of censorship in religious matters, a new police measure against the press which has hardly begun to breathe freely. “Christianity is sure of victory, but according to Mr. Hermes it is not so sure of victory that it can scorn the help of the police.”
In dealing with the main question, whether philosophy should discuss religious matters even in newspaper articles, Marx develops a broad line of argument which strongly recalls certain ideas laid down in his dissertation. He begins with the proposition that the question can be answered only by criticizing it. Philosophy, above all German philosophy, has a propensity to solitude, to systematic seclusion, to dispassionate self-contemplation which opposes it from the outset in its estrangement to the slick and alert newspapers, whose only pleasure is in information. Philosophy, in accordance with its character, has never taken the first step towards replacing its ascetic priestly vestments with the light, superficial garb of the newspapers. But philosophers do not spring up like mushrooms; they are the products of their time and of their nation, whose most subtle, precious and invisible sap circulates in philosophical ideas. The same spirit that builds railways by the hands of the workers builds philosophical systems in the minds of philosophers. Philosophy does not stand outside the world any more than man's mind is outside of him because it is not in his stomach; but, of course, philosophy is in the world with its brain before it stands on the earth with its feet, whereas many another human sphere has long been rooted in the earth by its feet and plucks the fruits of the world with its hands before it has any idea that the “head” also belongs to the world or that this world is the world of the head.
Having developed this argument, Marx comes to the point at issue. Because every true philosophy is the spiritual quintessence of its time, the time must come when, not only internally by its content but externally by its appearance, philosophy comes into contact and mutual reaction with the real, contemporary world. Philosophy then ceases to be a definite system in presence of other definite systems, it becomes philosophy in general, it becomes the philosophy of the world of the present. The formal features which attest that philosophy has achieved that importance, that is the living soul of culture, that philosophy is becoming worldly and the world philosophical, have at all times been the same. Philosophy is heralded into the world by the clamour of its enemies who betray their inner malaise by their desperate appeals for help against the blazing heat of ideas. These cries of its antagonists mean as much to philosophy as the first cry of a child to the anxious ear of the mother; they are like the first cry of the ideas which have burst open the orderly, hieroglyphic husk of the system and have become citizens of the world.
Of course, the enemies first turn against the religious sector among the philosophers, partly because the public, to which the opponents of philosophy themselves belong, can feel the ideal sphere of philosophy only with their ideal, that is, their religious instincts, partly because religion is opposed not to a definite system of philosophy but generally to philosophy structured in particular systems.
The true philosophy of the present time, thus Marx's conclusion, does not differ, as far as this is concerned, from the true philosophies of the past. Indeed, this fate is a proof that history owes to the truth of philosophy. He alludes to the campaign mounted by the German papers, which for six years had been drumming against the religious trend in philosophy, calumniating, distorting, bowdlerizing it. What Marx has in mind is the series of critical attacks launched on the traditional foundations of Christianity by the Young Hegelian school, starting in 1835 with the publication of David Strauss's Life of Jesus; a movement which had recently, in 1841, reached its climax in Ludwig Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity. In spite of the charge, vociferously proclaimed by the German papers, that philosophy was not suited for public discussion, that it was the idle bragging of youth, a fashion for blasé coteries—in spite of all that, they could not be rid of it. All the papers, from the most widely read down to the local and obscure, including the Kölnische Zeitung were carrying on about Hegel and Schelling, Feuerbach, Bauer, and so forth. The curiosity of the public was eventually aroused; and they wanted to see the Leviathan with their own eyes, the more so when semi-official but inspired articles threatened philosophy with having a legally prescribed syllabus thrust upon it. And that was how philosophy made its appearance in the papers. Long had it kept silence, even objecting that newspapers were an inappropriate medium for it; “but in the end it had to break silence; it became a newspaper correspondent”.
Marx's conclusion typifies the way in which he identified his own personal development with the inner logic of the development of philosophy generally. At the very moment he has himself been driven by the necessity of his own philosophical ideas, combined with the pressure of external reactions, to abandon a career as an academic philosopher and to move into public life, at that moment he describes his development in terms of “philosophy became a newspaper correspondent”, instead of “I became a newspaper correspondent”. In other words, his personal career is philosophy incarnate, philosophy immersed in the historical situation out of which it has emerged.
This was not yet the whole truth, to be sure. The question whether philosophy should discuss religious matters in newspaper articles was followed by a second question which in fact contained the heart of the matter: “Should politics be dealt with philosophically by the newspapers in a so-called Christian state?” In reply to his opponent who had defended the Christian state against the philosophical attacks made by the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx now goes on to tear the idea of a Christian state to pieces. The truly religious state is the theocratic state; the prince of such states must be either the God of religion, Jehovah Himself, as with the Jewish state; God's representative, the Dalai Lama, as in Tibet; or else all Christian states must submit to an infallible Church. For if, as in Protestantism, there is no supreme head of the Church, the domination of religion is nothing but the religion of domination, the cult of the will of a particular government. The dilemma cannot be resolved: either the Christian state corresponds to the concept of the state as a realization of rational freedom, or the state of rational freedom cannot be developed out of Christianity.
Therefore, Marx concludes, the state is not to be constituted on a basis of religion but of the rational character of freedom. Philosophy has done nothing in politics that physics, mathematics, medicine, every science, has not done within its own sphere. In the period immediately before and after the time of Copernicus's great discoveries regarding the solar system, the gravitational principle of the state was being discovered: the centre of gravity of the state was to be found within the state itself. Machiavelli and Campanella, followed by Hobbes, Spinoza, and Hugo Grotius on to Rousseau, Fichte and Hegel, began to contemplate the state from a truly human standpoint and to develop its natural laws on a basis of reason and experience, not of theology. Modern philosophy has simply continued a process already started by Heraclitus and Aristotle. Consequently, what ignorance yesterday, or perhaps the day before yesterday, discovered in the Rheinische Zeitung, is the ever-modern philosophy of reason, rather than the reason of modern philosophy.
However, if there was hardly room for his “philosophy of reason” within the sphere of academic theology and philosophy, Marx was very well aware that the prospects were even worse where the popular press was concerned. His moving into the world of the press was only a first step on a long road. It is a striking fact that the maiden article he wrote at the start of his new career, in the first months of 1842, was a sharp attack on the new instruction concerning public censorship, recently promulgated by the Prussian government. The heart of his attack is directed against what he describes as the confusion between the political and the Christian-religious principle, which had even become the official dogma of the government. Marx exposes the inner contradictions concealed in the pretensions of censorship to be defending the Christian state. A government which calls its state broadly Christian, implicitly concedes, in diplomatic terms, its unChristian character. Such a government requires of religion that it lend its support to the temporal realm, while refusing to submit the temporal realm to the verdict of religion. In that way it demonstrates what its idea of religion is: namely, the cult of its own despotism.
Small wonder that the article was suppressed by the censor, so that in the end it had to be published in a German review edited in Switzerland. It was again censorship which in March 1843 ended Marx's brief career in the service of the Rheinische Zeitung, just half a year after his appointment as chief editor. No sooner had the philosopher turned journalist and newspaperman, than he had to encounter the reactions aroused by a philosophy that had begun to revolt against the world.
It meant, too, leaving his family circle and abandoning his social milieu. In June 1843 he married Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of an aristocratic family. Not long before, he wrote in a letter to his friend, Arnold Ruge: “For more than seven years our engagement has continued, and my fiancée has, on my behalf, fought some very severe battles which have almost undermined her health, contesting partly against her own pietistic-cum-aristocratic relatives who adore both ‘the sovereign in Heaven’ and ‘the sovereign in Berlin’ as cultic objects, partly against my own family, which has been intruded upon by some clerics and other enemies of mine. I and my fiancée have struggled during these years through more unnecessary and emotional conflicts than many others who, three times as old as we, boast of their wisdom and experience.” The conflict with his family deprived Marx of any financial support from that side.
Last but not least, this loss of family and social milieu also meant geographical emigration. From now on Marx and his family were doomed to share the wandering life of so many exiles. At the same time, his exile enabled him to break out of the confines of a narrow German provincialism and to evolve into a European, a citizen of the world. In co-operation with Arnold Ruge he decided to move to Paris as editor of the new periodical Deutsch-Französische Jahrbúcher. The design behind this international review had had its sad prehistory in Germany itself. Five years earlier, the Young Hegelian group had launched a review Hallische Jahrbúcher för Wissenschaft und Kunst. Anticipating some action on the part of the Prussian censor, the editorial committee had moved after three years to Leipzig in Saxony and renamed their publication Deutsche Jahrbúcher för Wissenschaft und Kunst. This move brought no more than a brief respite; for one and a half years later, in January 1843, the review was prohibited by the government of Saxony, whose decision the German Federal Council extended and applied to the whole of Germany. Thus it came about that its editor, Arnold Ruge, was faced at the same time as Marx with the necessity to move his editorial activities abroad. The idea of an international review that should be jointly edited by the German and French avant-garde, was inspired by Ludwig Feuerbach's proclamation of the Gallo-German principle that the true philosopher, that is, the man whose philosophy is in harmony with life and humanity, should be of Gallo-German origin. His heart had to be French, and his head German. The head must reform, the heart revolutionize.
In Paris, Marx had excellent opportunity to study the prehistory and history of the French Revolution; he read the works of French and British socialist thinkers and made contact with a number of French socialists. At the same time he began his study of political economy, which for the rest of his life, spent in London, was to engage most of his attention and energy.
The Deutsch-Französiche Jahrbücher was fated to have an even shorter life than its German predecessors. Only one double issue was published before the various setbacks and obstacles to distribution in Germany, along with financial problems and a conflict of opinion between Marx and Ruge, brought this promising international project to a premature end. A month later, in April 1844, Marx's articles published in this review prompted an accusation of “high treason and lese-majesty” from the Prussian government, which then issued a warrant for Marx's arrest, if at any time he should enter Germany. In the early part of 1845, the Prussians successfully put pressure on the French government to have Marx expelled from France. Exiled from Paris, he moved to Brussels. When the Prussian government kept up its pressure on the Belgian government, Marx decided, at the end of the same year, to renounce his Prussian citizenship. He never afterwards acquired any other nationality. The revolutionary year of 1848 drove him via Paris to Cologne whence, expelled once more by the Prussian government, he returned in July 1849 to Paris. The next month saw his third period of exile followed; this time he sought refuge for himself and his family in London, where he was to remain for the rest of his life, a victim of the direst poverty, yet absorbed in his study and writing, and maintaining, as he expressed it in a letter to his friend Engels, a position of authentic isolation. The philosopher whom his own philosophy had thrust into the midst of world affairs, could not realize that philosophy save as an exile, nor live his exile except as a philosopher.
Against this background of a personal migration—viewed under the triple aspect of philosophy, social milieu and nationality—we have to interpret Marx's critique of heaven and earth. His life embodied his critical philosophy, just as his philosophy was rendered critical by his life. An adequate introduction to Marx's critique as it took shape in the crucial years between his departure from his fatherland and his arrival in London, is afforded by his letters to Ruge, written in 1843 between his resignation as chief-editor of the Rheinische Zeitung and his removal to Paris. The letters were published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, edited in 1844. The first letter was written while Marx was travelling by barge in Holland. He confesses his feelings of shame and despair regarding the political situation of his fatherland, where the fine apparel of liberalism had fallen away to reveal a hideous despotism, exposed to the world in all its nakedness. That is also a revelation, although a perverted one. Shame is in itself a revolution, the real victory won by the French Revolution over the German patriotism which had defeated it in 1813. Shame is a kind of rage, turned inward upon itself. If a whole nation were really to feel ashamed, it would become like a lion crouched and poised ready to spring. In fact, there is still no shame in Germany. On the contrary, the wretched Germans are still patriots. But the comedy of despotism being enacted by the present king is no less dangerous for him than a fatally tragic despotism had once been for the Stuarts and the Bourbons. Even if that comedy should for a time succeed in concealing its true colours, it would still mean a revolution. The state is much too weighty a matter to be dragged down to the level of a charade. A ship of fools might well drift before the wind for quite a time before anything disastrous happened; but it would finally meet its doom, simply because the fools refused to believe it. That doom is the revolution now near at hand.
Replying in May to Ruge's answer, which contains a long jeremiad on the hopeless situation of their fatherland, Marx sends a second letter, from Cologne. He calls Ruge's letter a fine elegy, a breath-taking lament; but it is not in the least political. No doubt the old world belongs to the Philistines. However, let us leave the dead to bury their dead. It is on the other hand a privilege to be the first to enter into the new life; that should be our destiny! Human self-respect, a sense of freedom, should be revived in these people. This feeling for freedom disappeared from the world with the Greek; and with Christianity it vanished into the blue haze of heaven. But only with the aid of this feeling can society be renewed as a community which serves the supreme human goal, a democratic state. The Philistine world is a world of political animals, a dehumanized world. Germany, the culmination of the Philistine world, cannot but lag behind the French Revolution, which restored man as a human being. For the principle of the monarchy generally is man as a despised, dehumanized being; and the Prussian king will remain typical of all the rest of his people, so long as the perverted world is the real world. Therefore, the task ahead of us is to expose the old world in its totality to the daylight and to shape the new. The longer the time thinking men have in order to come to their senses, and suffering mankind is granted for concentration, the more mature, when finally brought to birth, will be the product now growing in the womb of the present.
The third letter was sent from Kreuznach where, since his marriage in June, Marx had been staying at his mother-in-law's house, waiting to set out for Paris. He is looking forward to the new project, the review Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, which he is to edit in collaboration with Ruge; and he is longing to escape from the tyrannical atmosphere of his fatherland into the free air of the new Capital of the new world. He then begins to consider the internal difficulties inherent in the new enterprise. General anarchy has broken out among the reformers; and they would all be compelled to admit that they have no precise idea about the future. However, it is precisely the advantage of the new movement that we do not seek to anticipate the new world dogmatically, but rather to discover it in the critique of the old. Up to now the philosophers have always had the solution to the riddle lying in their writing desks; and all the stupid outside world had to do was to close its eyes and open its mouth to receive the ready-baked pie of absolute science. Philosophy has become worldly; and the most striking proof of this is that the philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the heat of the fray, not just superficially, but completely. “It is certainly not our task to construct the future in advance and to settle all problems for all time; but it just as certainly is our task to criticize the existing world ruthlessly. I mean ruthlessly in the sense that we must be unafraid of our own conclusions and equally unafraid of coming into conflict with the prevailing powers.”
Marx continues his letter with an exposition of the contrast between critique and dogmatism. The function of critique is to force the dogmatic thinkers to clarify the meaning of their propositions. He has no desire to unfurl any dogmatical standard; and communism as advocated by Cabet, Dezamy and Weitling he regards as a dogmatic abstraction. Whether one likes it or not, the chief interest of contemporary Germany is in religion and only secondarily in politics. It is no use presenting them with a ready-made system like that contained in “The journey to Icaria”.
Reason has always existed, albeit not always in a rational guise. Critique can begin, therefore, with any form of theoretical and practical consciousness; and out of the specific forms of existing reality it can develop the true reality as its “ought” (Sollen) and its ultimate goal. Social truth can be arrived at everywhere from the contradiction in the political state, from the conflict between its ideal goal and its practical assumptions. Just as religion is the summation of the theoretical battles of mankind, so the political State is the summation of its practical battles. Thus, the political State in its specific form, i.e. sub specie rei publicae (considered from the political point of view), is the expression of all social struggles, needs, truths. There is therefore nothing to prevent our beginning our critique with a critique of politics, taking part in politics, that is to say, in real struggles. In this way, we would avoid presenting ourselves to the world in doctrinaire fashion and with a new principle, declaring: here is truth, bow down and worship it. We should develop new principles for the world out of its old ones. We must not say to the world: stop your quarrels, they are foolish, and listen to us; we possess the real truth. Instead we must show the world why it struggles; and this consciousness is something it must acquire, whether it likes it or not. The reform of consciousness simply consists in helping the world to take possession of its own consciousness; it means awakening the world from its dream about itself, explaining to the world its own actions.
At this point Marx mentions the work of Feuerbach, but with a crucial addition. As Feuerbach's critique had done at the religious level, so now it is necessary to cast religious and political questions in the form of human self-consciousness. Our programme should be the reform of consciousness, not by means of dogmas, but by analysing the nebulous, mystical consciousness both in its religious and in its political manifestations. It will then become evident that in order to possess it in reality, the world must possess a thing consciously which it has long been dreaming of. It will also become evident that the point at issue is not a caesura between past and present, but the realization of the ideas of the past. Finally, it will become evident that mankind is not embarking on a new task but is setting out to complete an old one.
Marx then summarizes his argument in a succinct editorial formula for the new review about to be launched in Paris: to help the age to come towards a realization of its struggles and its yearnings (Selbst-verständigung)—in a word, critical philosophy. This, he concludes, is a task designed to benefit the world and ourselves. It calls for unanimity. “The heart of the matter is a confession, that is all. In order to receive forgiveness of its sins, mankind need only explain them in their true reality.”
With these triumphant words Marx ends his last letter to Arnold Ruge, written on the eve of his departure for Paris, “the new capital of the new world”, chosen to be the centre for the realization of this programme. In these three letters, and especially in the third one, are contained the germs of the philosophy which in the following years was to be brought to theoretical and practical fruition. It is useful, therefore, to summarize its main points.
The closing sentence of Marx's third letter sums up his whole programme as the realization of the forgiveness of sins. We are strongly reminded here of the comparison between Socrates and Christ which Marx had elaborated in the preparatory studies for his dissertation. There he had pointed to a radical contrast between Socrates’ skill as a midwife of philosophy and Christ's religious work as saviour from sin. In other words, whereas Socrates is the perfect philosopher of immanence, Christianity is the perfect philosophy of transcendence. Now, only a few years later, Marx has in fact transferred the issue from the individual realm to that of mankind generally; and at the same time the scene has shifted from within the human mind on to the stage of world history in its full dimensions. The sins which need to be confessed in order to be forgiven are more than personal aberrations; they are collective sins, the sins of the world, of mankind as a whole; and they have been committed by countless generations. They constitute in fact the cumulative sin of world history.
This is obviously to transmute critical philosophy into something Socrates could never have dreamt of. In the preparatory studies for his dissertation Marx had hinted at two further implications of Socrates’ philosophy, one in the religious and one in the political sphere. In the religious sphere, Socrates’ historical personality had been turned by Plato into a myth, the myth of the negative dialectics of death and love, which found its final consummation in Plotinus’ ecstatic contemplation. Marx suggested that there was a deeper congeniality between Platonic mythology, which turns philosophy into religion, and a Christian religion which is the perfect philosophy of transcendence. In other words Socrates’ critical philosophy had finished up in the blind alley of religion, either neoplatonic or Christian.
As far as the political aspect is concerned, Marx had analysed the contradictory character of Socrates’ philosophy, which on the one hand was profoundly critical, and at the same time was incapable of breaking through the substantial limitations of Greek life and thought. In Plato's Republic the balance came down on the side of substantiality, which overrode and absorbed the Socratic element of critical subjectivity. In that connection, Marx had noted the radical contrast between Plato and Christ, in that Christ had championed the subjective element against the existing State. Marx's tacit conclusion was that, unfortunately, this subjective critique of the State had gone astray, had been sidetracked by religion. If we try to express the conclusion implicit in Marx's reasoning, then we come to something like the following argument. The close affinity between Platonism and Christianity on the religious level is counterbalanced by the sharp contrast between Plato and Christ in the political realm. Nevertheless, Christianity failed in this respect no less fatally than Platonism, though for opposite reasons. Whereas Socrates and, a fortiori, his pupil Plato succumbed to the substantiality of Greek life and thought as embodied in the unity of religion and politics, Christ and the Christian Church on the other hand opposed their subjective religiosity to the profane political realm, and in so doing transposed the subjective spirit into an otherworldly region. This conclusion seems to be implicit in a remark made in Marx's first letter to Arnold Ruge, that the feeling for freedom vanished from the world with the Greeks, and with Christianity disappeared into the heavenly blue. Here then was double proof of the fatal influence of religion, whether of the substantial or the subjective variety, when it came to involvement in the political realm.
The point at issue now, therefore, was how to revive this vanished feeling for freedom, which alone is capable of transforming society into a community of men fitted to serve their highest destiny, that is, a democratic state. This was the task outlined by Marx for critical philosophy. Enthusiasm for freedom might seem to have vanished. Actually, it was still present, but in a perverted form; for it had disappeared into a dream-world. The function assigned by Marx to critical philosophy is comparable to the function which, half a century later, Siegmund Freud proposed for psycho-analysis. An inverted consciousness has to be restored through analysis of its unreal, its dreamlike, manifestations. But whereas Freud, in spite of the revolutionary implications of his approach, was, like Socrates, to keep his critical analysis strictly within the confines of the prevailing political system, Marx, on the contrary, wielded his critical armoury against the political system itself. And whereas Freud, like Socrates, took as his viewpoint the individual consciousness, the viewpoint of Marx was the consciousness of mankind as a whole, of mankind throughout the course of its history. Therefore, when Marx came to interpret the confession of sins needed for man's self-liberation, he did not relate this to man's individual errors, but to his false consciousness as embodied in the collective structures of religion and politics.
In other words, Marx transmuted Socrates’ critique into a profoundly historical action. Philosophy had become involved with the world, had been drawn into the front line of the battles of contemporary history. That was where philosophy was called upon to apply its critique and so to bring about the reform of consciousness. The reform of consciousness could not be achieved without a revolution. Revolution is conceived in the head of philosophy, just as philosophy is born in the midst of world affairs.
We have already heard one part of Marx's attack on Herr Hermes, editor of the Kölnische Zeitung, a passage comparing the introduction of philosophy into the world with the birth of a child. The cries of its enemies mean as much to philosophy as the first cry of a child to the anxious ear of the mother. This strange comparison is only understandable in terms of its mythological origin. Marx is thinking of the ancient Greek story about the birth of the god Zeus, which was announced by a roll of drums performed by the Corybantes and the Gabiri, the priests of the goddess Gybele.
This is reminiscent of a passage in the preparatory studies of Marx's dissertation which deals with the Epicurean idea of the declination of the atom from the straight line. The declination of the atom is the principle of its absolute autonomy, it is the soul of the atom. Epicurus’ atomic world is a world in which independent atoms engage in a process of reciprocal repulsion. Marx illustrates this with a reference to the ancient Greek story about the birth of the god Zeus: “Just as Zeus grew up amid the furious war-dances of the Curetes, so in Epicurus’ view the world originates amid the clanging war-dances of the atoms.”
This present reference has to do with a parallel version of the same story. The Corybantes and Cabiri were identified in Asia Minor with the Curetes, priests of the goddess Rhea, mother of Zeus. According to the myth, the Curetes drowned the voice of the new-born Zeus by striking upon their shields with their swords.
Marx envisages the birth of philosophy as the creation of a world. The world, that is, the world of man, the war-like world of modern society. Philosophy does not spring out of pure thought, but grows up in the midst of history.