18 June 2010

Soul of Soulless Conditions

Soul of Soulless Conditions

Karl Marx wrote his “Introduction to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right” 37 years earlier than when Oscar Wilde wrote the “Soul of Man Under Socialism”. He expressed similar impatience with the Germans as Wilde did with the English, and with as much stunning brilliance as did the ever-dazzling Wilde.

Even though he writes of the abolition of religion, yet Marx, with words that have forever since been famous, expressed his tender understanding of “the heart of a heartless world”. Those who only quote the part about the “opium of the people” usually miss the point. One who called it “the sigh of the oppressed creature” could not have had contempt for religion.

Marx was 25 years old. He was the former editor of a distinguished (and then banned) magazine, and a Doctor of Philosophy. For religion he had an appropriate, sympathetic and poetic respect. Marx did not make war on religion, but he was certainly proposing to storm the heights of philosophy (For the work itself, as opposed to its Introduction, see Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right on MIA).

So the linked text is the confident Introduction to an ambitious work that was never published in Marx’s lifetime. He was proposing to issue a critique of the “Philosophy of Right”, the most accessible of Hegel’s works. Hegel’s works were at the height of their fame and prestige. The great philosopher had died thirteen years previously, but his works were still the jewels in the German intellectual crown. At 25, Marx was aiming to publicly criticise the world’s most celebrated philosopher (Hegel’s work, by the way, was a guide and strength to Marx throughout his career).

Marx wrote the Introduction [download linked below] with a brilliance that was deliberate. Any summary of it would therefore be bound to kill the richness of this short text, wherein every line is worthy of debate, or at least worthy of being read out loud to an audience.

Let us therefore just point out a few things that are of use to our project.

Let us note that neither Marx nor Engels wrote very much at all about religion in their subsequent four and five decades of life. This Introduction is the most substantial of Marx’s writings on religion, insofar as it is about religion. But it is also about philosophy, and about class politics. Marx’s first sentence claims criticism of religion as the prerequisite of all other criticism. But he seldom, if ever, returned to lean upon this point in his later works.

Rather, Marx is concerned to establish, not the condition of religion, but the condition of life once the illusions of religion have left the minds of the living. Marx is saying that when the same critical light is cast upon the earth as was previously shone upon the heavens, then a much more substantial result could be expected.

Towards the end of the Introduction comes this question and answer:

“Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation?

“Answer: In the formulation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.”

This 1843 (written) or 1844 (published) statement is categorical evidence of Marx’s commitment already at that time to the historical role of the working class. This was before Marx had teamed up with Engels. The team-up only happened later in 1844 (September), in Paris, France, although they had met briefly in Cologne, Germany, in November 1842.

What it also shows is Marx’s conception of the growth of the working class as the determining event going into the future; and this has implications, if true, for South Africa in 2010. The determining factor will be the growth of the South African working class, both objectively and subjectively; both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Says Marx, nearly at the end of the Introduction:

“Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization of philosophy.”

In terms of its capacity to fulfil its historic role, or not, philosophy will be the proletariat’s essential tool or weapon.


Other (related) reading:

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