It’s all about “The Thing” — you know, reality
I’ve been reading Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach“, and I love the way he talks about “The Thing” — you know, reality.
The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.
Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence, in The Essence of Christianity, he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation. Hence he does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary”, of “practical-critical”, activity.
He calls reality, “the thing”, and he says Feuerbach treats “the thing” as an object of contemplation. The object isn’t engaged, it is contemplated; the object contemplated is not human activity, it is not subjective but an object. This idea reappears as the commodity fetish in Capital.
I think this is the entire secret of the failure of academic Marxism. It cannot grasp the categories of political-economy as human activity. Money is not the object “MONEY”; it is the division within the social activity of billions of individuals being carried on in isolation and without a plan. Once historical materialism uncovered the secret of money, the point was to abolish these divisions, not debate whether money is objective. In fact, money is only as “objective” as human productive activities are divided in reality.
Likewise, the state is only the expression of the divisions within civil society; it is only as “real” as the divisions within society and no more. The point Marx makes in relation to the state is the same as he makes with money — once the society is revealed as the basis for the state, society itself must be abolished. We keep focusing on “the thing”, long after we have already exposed “the thing” for what it really is: human activity as an object. “The thing” rules over us, dominates us, makes us miserable; yet, despite realizing it is only our activity, we treat it as the object.
The study guide on marxists.org that accompanies Marx’s theses asks: “Isn’t this statement by Marx idealist?” I think this question is partly stupid, or, at least, worded stupidly. There is an element of this argument that appears to suggest we can change reality by changing our behavior — some argue, for instance, we can abolish money or the state simply by refusing to go along with them. But, Marx is not making that argument; he is proposing a diagnosis of social phenomenon — oppression, exploitation, hunger, want, etc. He is pointing to the root source of these social ills. By framing the question in philosophical terms, we miss the point of his argument. A better way to put it: Is Marx practicing social quackery?
Is Marx making a scientific diagnosis of social ills, or is he engaged in prescribing snake oil potions and voodoo; is he offering us some pseudoscience of unbalanced social humors. Marx is making an argument that the categories of political-economy are the perverse symptoms of human activity in specific historical circumstances. The problem is with society, not the state; production without a plan, not money; material relations, not ideas.
Marx really is not doing anything very extraordinary here; he is simply proposing a source of social illness as a medical doctor once proposed bacteria as the source of some physical illnesses — as opposed to demons or “unbalanced humors“. (Interestingly enough, bacteria as the cause of diseases actually dates to the Bronze Age — well before it was finally proposed by modern medicine as the source of illness.)
The argument is highly charged politically, because it basically says all these social ills are being created by our activity, not natural. Capitalism creates poverty; but, just as important, capitalism creates both money and the state. This implies capitalism is increasing the divisions within society along with its own development. And, by this I do not mean the division between social classes — which actually grows more simplified over time; I mean the divisions within each class, which begin to approach a state of pure atomization.
The upshot of the first of Marx’s theses is that the conclusions he reaches will be scientific, independently discoverable, objectively verifiable, and disprovable. He is proposing a scientific approach to social criticism that is a natural science and should be treated as one.