History And Human Existence

History And Human Existence

by James Miller

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From the Introduction:
The present essay provides an introduction to the treatment of human existence and individuality in Marxist thought. The work will be primarily concerned with two related topics: the evaluation by Marxists of individual emancipation and their assessment of subjective factors in social theory.
By taking up these taking


From the Introduction:
The present essay provides an introduction to the treatment of human existence and individuality in Marxist thought. The work will be primarily concerned with two related topics: the evaluation by Marxists of individual emancipation and their assessment of subjective factors in social theory.
By taking up these taking up these topics within a systematic and historical framework, I hope to generate some fresh light on several familiar issues. First, I pursue a reading of Marx focused on his treatment of subjectivity, individuation, and related methodological and practical matters; second, I apply this interpretation to analyzing the dispute between Marxist orthodoxy and heterodoxy over such matters as class consciousness and the philosophy of materialism; finally, I employ this historical context to clarify the significance of "existential Marxism," Maurice Merleau-Ponty's and Jean-Paul Sartre's contribution to Marxist thought.

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University of California Press
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History and Human Existence - From Marx to Merleau-Ponty

By James Miller

University of California Press

Copyright © 1982 James Miller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-04779-6

Chapter One

Marx's Hopes for Individuation

He insisted on the social medium of existence, the public dimension of self-expression, the objective elements of human agency; he analyzed the conventional weight of institutions, the laws of economic exchange, and the cumulative momentum of history. And yet Karl Marx, in striving for a science of society, remained equally preoccupied throughout his life with the individual-not, it is true, as a self-seeking egoist, nor as spiritual avatar, but instead the individual as a sociable and objective being, rich in vocations and values, multifaceted in wants and talents, gifted with free time and a sense of wholeness.

A utopian prospect? Perhaps. But also an index of human possibilities: the "social individual" as the telos of a history rendered rational, not only via the political emancipation of the individual, but also, and more importantly, through the conscious appropriation, by associated individuals, of their collective powers and institutions. This, at least, was Marx's vision.

It is a vision that incorporates individuation as one of its central elements. Indeed, Marx maintained an interest in individuation throughout his life, an interest evinced in Capital as well as his earliest essays. To be sure, Marx's understanding of individuation as an historical accomplishment evolved as he developed his broader theory; yet while he abandoned the philosophical anthropology of his youth, he never ceased to value individuation as one of the most progressive and desirable tendencies of history. Rather than merely repudiating the modern ideal of individuality, Marx radicalized it: communism would complete the process of individual emancipation pressed forward by capitalism and liberalism.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, European liberals sought, and in some areas helped accomplish, the emancipation of the individual from the authority of monarchial and ecclesiastical institutions. In so doing, the liberal movement in politics furthered a process initiated by the rise of Protestantism, the growth of trade and industry, and the subsequent mass migration of people from the countryside to the burgeoning cities of Europe. During the Middle Ages, man had been conceived primarily in relation to a larger religious and communal order: this social and spiritual realm supplied the individual with a raison d'être and assigned him his station in life. The view of the individual which emerged during the modern period by contrast upheld as its ideal the autonomous personality, independent of the ties of religious and political hierarchy. Many of the leading philosophers and social theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had anticipated the main themes of the new view: Descartes's theory of the self, like the economic man portrayed in classical political economy, could be used to support a novel vision of the individual as an essentially free agent.

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen provided the classic political statement of European liberalism and its central tenets. Men were born and remained free and equal in rights; these rights included liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. Liberty, defined as the freedom to do anything that did not infringe on another person's freedom, was established by public law, before which all individuals were treated as equals, without regard to social position. Sovereignty resided in a people and nation, not a monarch or privileged estate.

A broadly defined image of the individual emerged from liberal thought. Autonomous and self-reliant, the individual also appeared acquisitive and self-interested. On the positive side, individuals were valued for developing their special capacities and perfecting their particular personality. But in any case, the individual was portrayed in contrast to the community; the liberal state was primarily to assume a negative role, mediating the interaction of individuals, since, without a minimum of public regulation, the utopia of monadic individualism threatened to degenerate into a nightmare of selfish egos competing for scarce resources.

Liberal ideas and institutions did not undergo a uniform development throughout Europe, however. In some countries, such as Germany, a more traditional view of the state persisted well into the nineteenth century; there, individual freedoms were often secured through concessions from the established authorities, a situation which reinforced the customary connection between duty and liberty. In this context, individual rights could be regarded as an attribute of a properly constituted sovereign, rather than a critical protection against the sovereign. Moreover, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a number of German theorists advocated enlightened despotism, an approach which continued to influence political thought in the nineteenth century.

After the July Days of 1830, demands for liberal reforms grew throughout Germany. But the chief response was increased repression and censorship; as a result the liberal movement was forced to operate without adequate public representation and under a suffocating set of restrictions on meetings and publications. The popular basis for a liberal politics seemed questionable, too. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Germany remained a backward and predominantly agricultural country, even though peasants and artisans were being uprooted by the slow decline of older sectors of the economy. While these conditions forced the social question to the fore, political circumstances made articulating what popular discontent did exist difficult; liberalism consequently remained the creed of relatively isolated groups of intellectuals.

In the 1830s, the German liberal movement united around issues of anticlericalism and a cosmopolitan hostility to Prussian domination. At least in principle, most liberals claimed to represent "the people": in addition to constitutional reforms and freedom of the press, the liberals sought an end to economic privilege and restrictions on trade. But the movement was divided over how to attain these goals. One group appealed to established authorities for reform, while another hesitated between such appeals and autonomous claims in terms of popular rights. A radical group, finally, advocated uncompromising popular sovereignty, and a total break with the existing regimes.

For philosophical as well as strategic reasons, various factions split before 1848. The philosophy of Hegel, in particular, became a source of contention. Hegel himself had asserted the necessity of an hierarchical sovereign state which could impose common aims and ideals on the competing particular interests within civil society; as a result, his philosophy was commonly regarded as a justification of the Prussian monarchy, even though Hegel himself had proposed critical changes in the Prussian constitution. But some young Hegelians declared their mentor's apparent reconciliation of particular and universal interests premature. In their eyes, the arbitrary authoritarianism of Prussian politics thwarted human freedom, the avowed object of the Hegelian philosophy. A radical faction grouped around a militant reading of Hegel and demanded that political policies actually conform to the dictates of Reason as deciphered by a dialectical philosophy committed to a free state. More cautious liberals, by contrast, argued that contemporary institutions carried at least the promise of rationality within them already. For such liberals, reform could be accomplished within the bounds of established law.

The Individual in the Bourgeois State

Although Marx came to criticize liberalism and its understanding of individual emancipation, his earliest writings take their bearings from this context of political theory. In his dissertation, completed in 1841, Marx had defended the liberal party as the only German movement that adhered to the "concept" of Hegelian philosophy, with its demands for a rational state. While positive philosophy exalted the existing state as rational, an authentically Hegelian and negative philosophy would demand, in the name of its unactualized concept, that the state be transformed so as to accord with rational norms. By remaining true to the concept of rational politics, and by seeing political rationality as a task yet to be accomplished, the liberal party could make progress: it could be "conscious in general of principle and aim."

In his first journalistic writings for the Deutsche Jahrbücher and the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx brought such theoretical preoccupations to bear on the current issues of the day, among them the introduction of representative government, freedom of the press, and the social question posed by the unincorporated poor, who belonged to no guild or estate and yet constituted as much as half the population in some areas of Germany. An article in 1842 attacking press censorship used the Hegelian premise of an ethical state to argue against Hegel's own conclusions. Marx agreed with Hegel that the state should embody an ethical community, publicly incarnating that "universal human nature" and rationality inherent in each individual; he also insisted that an "ethical state presupposes that its members" already have in mind "the view of the state." While laws without objective norms would be "laws of terrorism," a free state would avoid setting itself against its subjects; instead, it educated men to become "part of the state, by transforming the aims of the individual into universal aims." Only then might the individual find his satisfaction in the life of the state. Marx here sustained a democratic version of Hegel's political philosophy: in a truly representative state, each man, by obeying the laws of his own reason, would also obey the laws of the state, that "great organism."

The problems impeding the realization of such a truly representative state, however, were by no means negligible. In several articles on the plight of the impoverished, Marx protested the exclusion of the propertyless-in the new parlance of the day, sometimes called the "proletariat"-from full citizenship. Such an exclusion contravened the universality of a truly rational state. Moreover, the recent increases in the unincorporated poor suggested to Marx that the problem lay not with the poor but rather with the constitution, which refused even to recognize the problem. Marx thus placed the question of poverty at the center of his thinking about politics.

It was not until 1843, however, that he found the time to clarify the theoretical implications of his observations as a journalist. After reading books on the American and French revolutions, as well as Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, Marx turned his attention again to Hegel, to criticize The Philosophy of Right, a central text in the political polemics of the day. By mid-1843, he had drafted a section-by-section commentary on the book's later paragraphs. Although he published an introduction to this material, the main manuscript only appeared posthumously, as the Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right."

This Critique bore the imprint of Ludwig Feuerbach's "transformative" method. As Feuerbach himself had explained it, "We only have to make [Hegel's] predicate the subject, and likewise the subject the object and principle-therefore we only have to invert speculative philosophy-in order to have the undisguised, pure and clear truth." Feuerbach's example was instrumental in turning Marx's attention to the individual, both as the particular this, the tangible and perceptible "something" that founded all abstract thought, and as the conscious human being who conceived all philosophy, religion, and politics in the first place, according to Feuerbach's self-styled materialism.

In the Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right," Marx juxtaposed methodological and substantive criticisms: Hegel's proclivity to hypostatized abstractions abetted an antidemocratic politics. Hegel consistently divorced such human "predicates" as the state from their "real independence, their subject." Because of his consistent inversion of real relationships, Hegel severed the state from its actual basis, interacting individuals, while transforming the family and civil society into predicates of the state through its "selfpositing" activity. In Hegel's topsy-turvy world, the state itself becomes the creating subject, while the human subjects "become unreal, and take on the different meaning of objective moments of the Idea." Thanks to his starting point, Hegel ended by making the monarch the embodied subjectivity of the state, and the true animating impulse of society.

Marx, like Feuerbach, proposed a new, more concrete foundation for political philosophy: "One has to start from the real subject and examine its objectification." The subject was man; his real activity, his "objectification," was his outward creativity, in the form of ideas (like religion) as well as institutions (like those of politics). The methodological entreaty to return to the actual subject implied a political corollary: "The state is an abstraction; the people alone is the concrete." With his transformative critique of Hegel, Marx thus definitively abandoned neo-Hegelian liberalism in favor of what he called "true democracy," a populist halfway house between liberalism and communism.

Yet Marx in 1843 was still willing to grant Hegel's social analysis a relative validity, since the ethical form of the Hegelian state at least responded to the fragmented form of life within civil society. Hegel had been appalled by the atomism of that society; left to their own devices, he felt that the people were only "the Many, as units... a formless mass whose commotion and activity could therefore only be elementary, irrational, barbarous and frightful." Hegel hoped the modern state could provide civil society with a binding ethical order to combat this social disorder.

But Marx, while sympathetic with the Hegelian critique of civil society, by 1843 had also come to feel that any purely political accommodation missed the point. Even republicanism was denied Marx's blessing, since the political republic, as a mere constitutional form, provided democracy only within "the abstract form of the state." A political solution left the social bases of an atomized civil society intact and failed to solve the problem of poverty; as a result, the state, divorced from and set opposite the concrete forms of interaction within civil society, assumed the abstract form of rights and laws governing man qua citizen. Man qua man, on the other hand, pursued life in civil society as before.

As a consequence, the extent of individual emancipation within the modern state proved problematical.


Excerpted from History and Human Existence - From Marx to Merleau-Ponty by James Miller Copyright © 1982 by James Miller. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

James Miller is Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics and Special Advisor to the Provost at The New School for Social Research.

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