Practice and Materialism
Marxist materialism has frequently been distinguished from previous materialist doctrines by its introduction of practice, and, with it, history, into the concept. Auguste Cornu, Marx's biographer, sees this practical perspective as the key to Marx's break with Feuerbach, and his subsequent elaboration of a distinctive theoretical outlook. Yet even before this break, Marx had developed, largely in the 1844 manuscripts, his own concept of labor, derived in part from his critique of Hegel, in part from his readings in political economy.
Marx praised Hegel for making the "dialectic of negativity . . . the moving and generating principle" of his Phenomenology . Because Hegel conceives "the self-creation of man as a process, conceives objectification as loss of the object, as alienation and as transcendence of this alienation," Hegel grasps "the essence of labor and comprehends objective man—true, because real man—as the outcome of man's own labor ." For Marx as well, "The entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labor, nothing but the emergence of nature for man. . . . "
Labor comprised the "life-activity" peculiar to the human species. Since Marx defined the "whole character of a species" by the
character of its life activity, the role Marx assigned labor set his interpretation of such Feuerbachian concepts as "species-being" apart from Feuerbach's own. In The German Ideology Marx wrote that "men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce . . . . " But what was unique to man, according to Marx in the 1844 manuscripts, was not mere production, since "admittedly animals also produce"; rather, human production was "conscious life-activity," which "distinguished man immediately from animal life-activity." Only "in creating a world of objects , by his practical activity, in his work upon inorganic nature" did man prove himself "a conscious species-being."
In short, man effectively distinguished himself as a conscious being through production. A purely interiorized consciousness remained nothing, unless it was communicated or cast outside of itself, into the objective world. Labor for Marx represented the primary medium of this crystallization of consciousness, an externalization that simultaneously bore witness to its objective existence. When he asserted that "free, conscious activity is man's species character," Marx both offered an abstract description of individual labor as a necessary condition for human survival and proposed a norm of labor as it potentially could appear under unalienated conditions of free and conscious social production.
Because man had a capacity to shape the products of his life activity with a consciousness and a will, men, unlike animals, were capable of producing an infinite variety of objects. An animal produced only what it immediately needed; it reproduced only itself; its products belonged immediately to its body; it formed things only "in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs." Man by contrast produced objects even when free from physical need; he produced articles that other men could use; and he produced tools for carrying out production, implements that could be used again. He was capable of reproducing entire aspects of nature; he freely faced the products of his own hand as independent objects; and he could form the world according to an endless variety of standards, including the peculiarly human standard of beauty. Labor as such, considered in abstraction from historically specific social relations, thus in principle comprised a unity of mind
and body and creatively realized, by altering the world, the aims, not only of the laboring individual but also, indirectly, of the species. The labor process and its products represented the objective existence of subjectivity and the subjective self-formation of the species: man, by working within the world, "subjectified" the world, by subjecting it to his own ends.
This presentation of labor as a potentially free, conscious, and purposeful activity affected Marx's understanding of human history. If history was the story of humanity's self-genesis through labor, it was also the story of this genesis as "consciously self-transcending." History, like labor itself, never simply unfolded as a one-dimensional succession of happenings, but, additionally, as a series of ideal projects—ones that may not yet have been accomplished. "The entire movement of history is therefore both its actual genesis—the birth of its empirical existence—and also for its thinking consciousness the comprehended and known process of its becoming. . . . " Marx insisted not only on the moment of conscious projection in the labor process: he also defended the intentional projects of men as an essential element of history. In 1844, he even hinted that the aims the communists sought to actualize had their current basis in just such intentions—even more than in the objective reality those intentions, to be effective, had to reckon with.
To be sure, by stressing labor as the paradigmatic medium for realizing human intentions, Marx also stressed the importance of anchoring effective agency in an objective understanding of the world, in contrast to the Young Hegelians, who preferred to emphasize "pure critique" and the "pure act" to implement it: for Marx, there could be no "pure act," no "pure will." On the other hand, his respect for purposeful as well as effective agency served to distinguish his thinking from the materialism of Feuerbach as well as the idealism of the Young Hegelians. In his "Theses on Feuerbach," Marx made explicit his departures from previous versions of materialism.
One of Marx's central objections to Feuerbach concerned his passive portrayal of subjectivity. "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." This active side entailed for Marx, as for idealism, the conscious assertion of aim. Earlier materialist doctrines had postulated a one-way determinism of circumstances impinging on the individual; but Marx argued classical materialism "forgets that circumstances are changed by men. . . . The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice ."
The touchstone of man's objective existence thus became the practical realization of his intentions through labor. The emphasis of course fell on practice, not consciousness in itself: to the extent that thought was detached from reality, it had not yet even gained the element of its effective existence. "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question . Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice."
Marx's analysis of practice in 1844 and the "Theses on Feuerbach" transfigured his materialism in two important respects. The agent discussed was not the solitary cogito of contemplative philosophy; instead, through practice, other individuals were experienced, not as objects of thought, but rather as partners in action. As Lucien Goldmann put it, other subjects become "beings with whom I act in common . They are no longer on the object side but on the subject side of knowledge and action." As a consequence, Marx viewed society itself as a collective subject. But this was no transcendental subject whose inert essence would by nature unite the individuals comprising society through a bond of universality; rather the "essence" of man presented an historical accomplishment and objective possibility delimited by the structure of the social whole.
His analysis of practice also enabled Marx to penetrate the circle of passivity erected by previous materialisms. Practice, before actually transforming the world, projected a goal to be realized; to this extent, the cycle of practices was always a cycle of teleological transcendence. The standpoint of materialism incorporating practice was therefore not limited to the immediately given reality, but encompassed as well feasible projects for rationally reforming this reality. Translated into social terms, "the standpoint of the old materi-
alism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity." This transcending perspective catapulted materialist theory out of the merely contemplative realm: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." Feuerbach had wished "merely to produce a correct consciousness about an existing fact: whereas for the real communist it is a question of overthrowing the existing state of things."