[I apologize for the length of this. It seems I cannot say just a little about Marx. Even so, this is merely the briefest summary of what I ought to be saying. Oh well.]
As one might expect, the young Marx was powerfully shaped by the intellectual climate of the German university world in which he found himself. The leading influence was the German idealist philosopher Georg Hegel. Even though Hegel had died in '31, four years before Marx first went off to university, his thought remained the framework within which everyone, acolyte and critic, functioned. Hegel had been a deeply conservative political thinker, viewing the Prussian state as the high point and fulfillment of the onward march of Reason in History, but there was a rebel group of young men who featured themselves Left Hegelians, and Marx very quickly became an important part of that informal circle. The intellectual world was in as much of a ferment as the political and economic spheres. In 1835, David Strauss published his LIFE OF JESUS, which created a storm of protest and controversy. What Strauss did was to bring to bear on the Gospels the new techniques of textual interpretation and historiography then being developed by German scholars, concluding that the accounts of the miracles were mythological and could not be treated as reports of genuine events. Six years later, as Marx was completing his doctoral dissertation, Ludwig Feuerbach stunned the philosophical and theological world with his ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY, in which he argued that the standard Christian account of Man as having been created in the image of God was exactly backwards. Man, he said, had created God in his own image, taking the best characteristics of human beings -- their power of reason, their capacity for benevolence, etc. -- and, by raising these human characteristics to the highest conceivable level, had forged a conception of an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent deity.
This was heady stuff, and Marx was not alone in thinking that the world of ideas was undergoing a revolution quite as dramatic as that taking place in the palaces of government and the cathedrals of religion.
Faithful readers of this blog will know that I do not like Hegel's philosophy, but there is no denying its profound influence on every branch of intellectual activity in the nineteenth century. Marx took over from Hegel the structure or framework within which he conceptualized the stages of economic development -- indeed even the very notion of stages of development came from Hegel. In order to lay the groundwork for my later exposition of what Marx and Engels eventually named Historical Materialism, therefore, I must spend some time summarizing, or sketching the outlines, of Hegel's rather powerful idea. [Yesterday evening I watched Rachel Maddow interviewing a Republican operative, and the generosity and good spirit with which she treated this man, with whom, as she observed, she had virtually no agreement on any matter of politics, set an example for me. So I shall acknowledge Hegel's importance, and the originality and usefulness of his ideas, for all that I do not like him. As they say in the self-help world, I am trying to be a better person. :) ]
What Hegel did, if I can put it this way, was to immanentize and secularize the Christian story. The Christian story, in its outlines, recounts the succession of metaphysical or theological stages through which human beings move on their way from the beginning to the end of history. History begins with the Creation, which includes the creation of Man in the Garden of Eden. The second stage begins with The Fall, which results in mortality and the expulsion from Eden. The third stage commences with God's compact with Abraham, repeated and deepened by the renewal of the compact [or Testament] with Noah and Moses. God gives to Man His Law, in the form of the Ten Commandments and their elaboration, and promises that if Man will keep this Law, God will make him to multiply and flourish. The entire period of the Old Testament is the period of The Law. But man repeatedly shows that he cannot keep God's Law, which, since it is eternal and divine law, must obeyed to the last jot and tittle if at all. So God in His infinite mercy makes The Law flesh in the Person of His only begotten son, Jesus Christ. With the Incarnation there begins a new metaphysical stage in the history of Man, the stage of the Word Made Flesh. Jesus offers Man salvation if he will but have faith, which is to say believe in the truth of this Divine Promise. But this too is impossible for Man, so God confers upon some men, despite their not deserving or having earned it, the ability to have Faith, which is to say Grace. Jesus promises to return from beyond the grave, at which time the Final Judgment will determine who is saved and who damned. And Time itself will end.
The crucial point to note here -- and this will, I promise, become central to Marx's Historical Materialism -- is that the relationship of Man to God is absolutely different from one stage of history to the next. Old testament farmers may cultivate their crops and tend their sheep in much the same way as New Testament farmers; Kings of Israel may resemble Medieval kings in their styles of rulership. Hence, early modern painters will portray the characters of the Old Testament as wearing clothing appropriate to sixteenth century Holland. But none of that matters at all. All that is important is whether one lives before or after the Fall; whether one lives under the Law or after the Law has been made Flesh. Everything is to be understood theologically, not sociologically or anthropologically.
What on earth does this have to do with capitalism and communism? Everything, as it turns out. The logical structure of the Christian story is this: A sequence of stages, each one utterly different from the others by virtue of its unique relation to God and His Law. The Creation, the Fall, the Old Testament, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the End of Time are defined by that relationship. There is, notice, no other order in which these stages could possibly occur. Nor is it possible to skip a stage [begin to sound familiar?]
Hegel took this story and translated it into a story about the unfolding in history of Geist or Spirit. Each of the stages of human history, in his account, was defined by the degree to which reason had unfolded itself and embodied itself in thought and society. And each stage of human history could be understood as the unfolding throughout a society of this stage of Reason's coming to know itself. [I have no idea what that means, so let us move on.] Thus, an entire society could be seen as the expression, or embodiment, of a unified Idea -- the Classical era, the medieval era, the Baroque era, the Romantic era. Hegel taught us to see the painting, architecture, sculpture, politics, even the styles of personality, as expressions of the same style or form or Idea. Thus, when Jacob Burckhardt wrote, in his classic work, THE CIVILIZATION OF THE RENAISSANCE IN ITALY, of "the Renaissance man" whose individuality extended even to his designing his own distinctive mode of dress, he was drawing on an idea that had originated in Christian eschatology and had been secularized and generalized by Hegel.
Very early in his intellectual development, the young Marx had the brilliant, though rather simple-minded, idea of inverting Hegel's story [inversion is another of Hegel's favorite categories]. Instead of construing the material elements of human life -- the wresting of a living from nature -- as reflections of, or embodiments of, one stage in the unfolding of the Idea, Marx undertook to construe the art, law, politics, and religion of each stage of social evolution as reflections of the way in which human beings got their food, clothing, and shelter. This is the sense in which Marx considered himself a Materialist rather than an Idealist. Marx retained Hegel's secular Christian notion of stages of history, and he kept too the notion that the succession of stages was necessitated, not random.
At first, when Marx really knew very little about the actual development and functioning of a capitalist economy, he seized on Adam Smith's seminal idea of the Division of Labor and with a great rhetorical and logical flourish made that the key to the succession of stages of history. The nice thing about division of labor is that if one does not think too deeply about it, it seems to be a unidimensional measure with natural endpoints. One starts with a society in which there is no division of labor. Everyone simply gets a living from nature as best as he or she can. This stage Marx calls Primitive Communism. With each major step forward in the division of labor, one moves on to a new stage in history. Relying on his knowledge of European history [no one in Europe knew much about any other history at that point], and passing rather lightly over the exact ways in which division of labor advances, Marx then identified Slave Economies, Feudal Economies, Capitalist Economies, Socialist Economies, and Communist Economies as the necessary forms of the progressive further division of labor. Just as the starting point is Primitive Communism, in which there is no division of labor, so that end of history [but not of human existence] is Communism, in which the division of labor has been carried to so complete an unfolding that no one is bound to a particular form of work. In one of his most famous pronouncements, Marx wrote: . ." as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic."
This passage has been much quoted and commented upon, but almost nobody notices that Marx clearly meant it as a joke. The "critical critics" were a small group of Marx's fellow Left Hegelians, led by the Bauer brothers, Bruno and Edger. Marx thought they were pompous airheads, and he and Engels excoriated them in their very early work, THE HOLY FAMILY, written in 1844 when Marx was twenty-six.
But be that as it may, Marx built Hegel's notion of stages of social development into the theory of economic development that he called Historical Materialism. We shall have a good deal to say about it a bit later on.
Next part: The Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.