21 June 2010

The Point is to Change the World

The Point is to Change the World

Any one of the eleven short Theses on Feuerbach (download linked below) would be adequate on its own as a topic for discussion in a study circle. The most famous of them is the last, and justifiably so:

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

This shows Marx, in 1845, as being firmly in the camp of those humanists for whom the active, free-willing human Subject (whether individual or collective) is the centre and the starting point of all philosophy and all politics. 

Marx never shifted from this strong and logical position. It locates him firmly in the opposite camp from those “materialists” who regard the human as derivative of, and secondary to, the purely physical universe. Marx poses the Subject in a dialectical relation with the Objective universe, but the Subject is the one with initiative. The Subject makes things happen for itself. The Subject changes the world.

This Marxian Subject/Object dialectic is also different to the idealism that ignores the material world, just as much as it is different from the materialism that prioritises the mechanical over the mental. The Subject changes the world, consciously.

Feuerbach’s intervention into the philosophical debates of the early 1840s created a sensation in the intellectual crucible that included Marx and Engels as well as the “Young Hegelians” with whom Marx and Engels were at the time falling out.

Reading the eleven “Theses” reveals that Marx immediately recognised Feuerbach as a materialist, but at once rejected Feuerbach’s brand of anti-religious materialism.

Thesis number two says that truth is a practical question. This is something that is repeated later on in the “classics” of Marxism. It, too, reinforces the assertion that the world or universe is a human world or universe. “It is men who change circumstances” says Marx in the third Thesis, and “human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”

The subsequent Theses develop this understand through to Thesis 10 which says: The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity.”

This is a good reminder that for Marx in particular, the term “civil society” in practice only means “bourgeois society”, and that therefore for Marxists, “civil society” is something to be overcome and transcended, and not something to be put on a pedestal and worshipped.

The image above represents Leon Battista Alberti, the greatest of the renowned rational humanists of the Italian Renaissance. They upheld the idea of the “uomo universale” (universal man), and regained the confidence to equal and then to surpass the achievements of the ancient world after a thousand years of backward feudalism in Western Europe. 

The Marxists are the humanists of today.


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