30 April 2023

The State of Karl Marx, Part I: A Conflicted Youth

'Why did Marx ditch the Bauerian line of polemical criticism and adopt the more revolutionary belief in direct action with which he is now associated?'

From The European Conservative

By Harrison Pitt

Why did Marx ditch the Bauerian line of polemical criticism and adopt the more revolutionary belief in direct action with which he is now associated?

When Karl Marx wrote home to his father at the end of 1837, he came out as a convert to Hegelianism. Explicitly tied to this was a conception of the state as a developing historical organism and therefore an agent of rationality in the world. As Marx makes clear, “in the concrete expression of a living world of ideas, as exemplified by law, the state, nature, and philosophy as a whole, the object itself must be studied in its development. The rational character of the object itself must develop as something imbued with contradictions in itself and find its unity in itself.” 

Certainly, there is no hint here of “the state” itself needing to “wither away” (“stirbt ab”), as Friedrich Engels later characterized the mature Marx’s understanding of communism’s endpoint. At this early stage, the state’s “unity” is to be accomplished in self-correction through dialectical conflict, as per Hegel’s logic and his political commitment to the Prussian reform movement. Marx’s basic position was even unchanged as late as 1842. This was before Ludwig Feuerbach had properly bolstered Marx’s faith in our shared humanity (what Feuerbach called “species-being,” or Gattungswesen) as a philosophical foundation for socialism. It was also before Marx had developed his commitment to the eventual obsolescence of the state once—the anti-human splintering of society into warring classes having been forcibly abolished—conditions of harmonious socialism could be trusted to rule human life in perpetuity.

These orthodox Marxist doctrines came later—well after 1842, where we find Marx dismissing the possibility of a vanished state as sheer fantasy. Responding to Moses Hess’s argument that, once we see humanity from a “higher standpoint,” it is feasible that “all laws, positive institutions, the central state power and finally the state itself, disappear,” Marx unloads:

Philosophy must seriously protest at being confused with imagination. The fiction of a nation of ‘righteous’ people is as alien to philosophy as the fiction of ‘praying hyenas’ is to nature.

By the mid-1840s, a complex sequence of political events and intellectual adjustments had led Marx to repudiate his old Hegelian faith in the state as man’s ultimate saviour. Instead, he developed an alternative, updated theory in which the state’s internal “contradictions,” as he had written to his father in 1837, no longer heralded the immanent development and perfection of the organism (what he had meant by its “unity in itself”), but rather demanded the state’s gradual disappearance.

Hegel celebrated the rational potential of the modern state, but he was certainly no simple-minded apologist for the contemporary Prussian model. As Charles Taylor explains, “the Hegelian state as portrayed in the PR [The Philosophy of Right] existed nowhere in totality.” Concerning Prussia, Taylor adds that in Hegel’s time 

[there was] no assembly of estates for the whole realm, but only for individual provinces; the debates in these were not public; trial by jury was not yet established; a rigid censorship prevented the formation of free public opinion; the Prussian monarchy was much more untrammelled than the constitutional monarchy portrayed in the PR.

While Hegel’s right-wing adherents spent their time trying to reconcile the master’s speculative philosophy with orthodox Christian faith, his more radical disciples—the so-called Young Hegelians—had by the end of the 1830s become more interested in accelerating Prussia’s progress towards such a rational state than in purely religious squabbles abstracted from politics. 

It was therefore possible, even into the early 1840s, to speak of a broad “party of movement” (Bewegungspartei). Marx, through his contacts with Bruno Bauer and other luminaries at Berlin University’s Doktorklub, gradually became an influential node in this Young Hegelian network of reforming idealists and political radicals. Marx set forth the ambition in his own words: to realize a state where “the individual citizen in obeying the laws of the state only obeys the natural laws of his own reason, of human reason.”

This meant conflict with the existing Prussian state, especially once the deeply Pietist, conservative Friedrich Wilhelm IV ascended to the throne in 1840. The new King fully believed in his own divine right to rule, despised the Enlightenment ideals of the French Revolution, and unlike his father, who had been more sympathetic to Hegelian tendencies, promoted a highly Romantic brand of ‘throne and altar’ conservatism that could never countenance the claims of reforming constitutionalists against his personal, God-anointed sovereignty. Censorship was relaxed at first, but soon resumed when the new King suppressed Arnold Ruge’s Hallische Jahrbücher and forced the closure of Athenäum. Marx’s own Rheinische Zeitung was given permission to operate in 1842 not because Friedrich Wilhelm IV was especially liberal, but because he naively expected its content to be less radical in character. In any case, the journal fell afoul of the censorship regime after just a year of life and was coercively shut down in March 1843. Still, between 1840-1843 Marx’s theory of the state swam more or less alongside Bruno Bauer’s political philosophy. Moreover, any intellectual drift from Bauer—Marx’s theory of the state, after all, was constantly developing during this period—took place independently of the ever-present threat of government censors.

Bauer was particularly ferocious in his critique of the Christian character of the state. His radical emphasis on man’s self-consciousness, as opposed to Hegel’s doctrine of an all-pervading Geist which uses our consciousness as the vehicle for its own development to self-awareness throughout human history, laid the groundwork for a new understanding of the relationship between Hegel’s retrospective examination of the past from the standpoint of speculative philosophy and revolutionary politics in the here and now. Hegel had warned against using the former as a pretext for the latter in the Preface to his Philosophy of Right: “The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the falling of dusk.” But with Bauer now pitting the critical, negative power of human self-consciousness against the existing positive institutions of religion, all of them clustered around the Prussian state and presuming to serve as its justification, Hegel’s philosophy of history was in pole position to be deployed for more radical purposes. The Aufklärung (German for the Enlightenment) having seemed to undermine the claims of religion to rule secular politics, Bauer’s ambition was to sweep away what he regarded as the mentally imprisoning, state-sponsored remnants of a discredited Christian theology in the name of the right to free subjectivity. (We might think of him as a more intelligent, though far less readable, Christopher Hitchens.) For as long as the state wraps itself in the sacred cloth of Christianity, self-conscious thought will continue to lose out (in political life at least) to religious dogma, otherwise due to die the death to which it was rationally and justifiably sentenced by the Aufklärung. Bauer’s desired transition from a divisive world where particular religious authorities compete for dominance to an authentic unity in which man is conceived as a ‘universal’ cannot occur if the state seeks to base its legitimacy in faith.

For this reason, Bauer committed himself to stimulating the state’s dynamic power. In Die evangelische Landeskirche Preußens und die Wissenschaft (1840), the state is defined as “the result of the struggle through which the purpose of morality, and its reality, are raised to a higher content, and the initially empty infinity has made itself into moral purpose and has attained legal recognition.” This is the state as the progenitor of law. But as a product of man’s self-conscious activity, the state cannot help also playing a role as the perpetual revisor and re-maker of law. “The state,” Bauer further says, “is then again the reaction against the result, since after the resolution of the struggle it lets its pure infinitude appear again against the particular form of the result. It is immortal, eternal.” The state’s positive manifestations, in other words, are constantly being born, killed off, and then raised to a higher unity all over again. According to Bauer, religion makes the mistake of viewing its particular dogmatic manifestations as “eternal” and therefore final, when in fact these are only the temporary, soon-to-be outdated offspring of the state’s inherently dynamic life, which is the only true locus of the “eternal.” 

Crucially, the state’s dynamic power must be harnessed by a culture of criticism, for critical reflection is what Bauer means by the “pure infinitude” of human self-consciousness. Without it, man becomes subject to his own finite past creations, having surrendered the independence of mind required to escape their powerful hold. Christianity is especially culpable in this respect. As Bauer warns, “the religious spirit is that splitting of self-consciousness in which its essential determinateness [its positive and religious offspring] appear over and against it as a separate power. Before this power, self-consciousness must necessarily lose itself, for it has ejected it into its own content.” By embracing Bauerian criticism, no such power is ceded. It remains solidly where it always has been, at least potentially: in the free agency of human self-consciousness, quite independently of the particular contents to which that same agency might choose to fasten itself at any given moment.

Bauer believed that the religious moment was properly at an end. Though still technically upheld by the state, this relationship was bound to perish altogether under the considerable weight of his own philosophy. In April 1840, Bauer wrote as much to Marx, predicting a fearsome “catastrophe” for Christianity: 

The hostile powers [by which he means the Christian state’s defenders] are now arrayed so closely together that a single blow will decide. The people who wanted to look out for themselves when they drew the state ever more into their interest have thus prepared their own final overthrow, and so they deserve thanks.

The echoes of Bauer’s philosophy can be detected constantly in Marx’s writings from the period 1842-1843. However, it is important to recognize that these same writings also bear the imprint of a young man whose theories, especially on the state, are still coalescing, often in reaction to events as well as intellectual shifts born of philosophical reflection. Still, the influence of Bauer looms large. Two traces can be seen in Marx’s first article as a revolutionary journalist, written in response to the Prussian government’s censorship instruction of December 24, 1841. He condemns the people he regards as complacent liberals, for whom the issue of censorship has more to do with individual personnel than systemic pathologies: 

should, perhaps, the objective defects of an institution be ascribed to individuals, in order fraudulently to give the impression of an improvement without making any essential improvement? It is the habit of pseudo-liberalism, when compelled to make concessions, to sacrifice persons, the instruments, and to preserve the thing itself, the institution. In this way the attention of a superficial public is diverted. 

As in Bauer, we encounter the proper object of criticism, namely the legal institutions of the state, being emphasized over the more limited role played by individuals involved at an administrative level. We also find disdain for the “superficial public,” indicating a lack of faith in Prussia’s populace and therefore a likely suspicion of unbridled democratic republicanism. Of course, Marx later repudiated this limited vision, but in 1842 he followed Bauer in combining republican ideals with a cautious scepticism about any notion of the masses as a wellspring of virtue. 

Plus, contrary to the suggestion that growing censorship forced Marx to break with Bauer’s critical philosophy, in early 1842 we find Marx challenging state censorship in explicitly Bauerian terms: “Censorship is official criticism,” he proclaims; “its standards are critical standards, hence they least of all can be exempted from criticism.” There is not only the obvious recourse to Bauer’s language of “criticism,” but a strong implication that since government censorship exhibits no more than the critical thoughts of those in power, it is vulnerable to the critical thoughts of those who, like Marx, are out of power. Top-down criticism can be fought with bottom-up criticism, with all spoils flowing to the intellectual victor. This reflects the kind of confidence on display in Bauer’s 1840 letter to Marx, where just one critical “blow” was said to be enough to “decide” the destiny of the state. It is conceivable, though it seems unlikely, that Marx had not yet considered the blatant power imbalance between so-called “official criticism” and the more marginalized philosophical variety. After all, thanks to Prussia’s state, it took more than a year for this very article on censorship to get published, and even then only in the Swiss-based Anekdota. Marx had personal experience with the disproportionate power wielded by official censors. His persistent use of Bauer’s terminology in the midst of this censorious atmosphere—even if it had not yet reached the level it did in March 1843, when the Rheinische Zeitung was forcibly closed—stands as proof of Marx’s belief that this power imbalance could be counterweighted by the superior quality of the criticism emanating from his own pen.

As such, Marx sets to work attacking the dubious Christian claims upon the state: “He who wants to ally himself with religion owing to religious feelings must concede it the decisive voice in all questions, or do you perhaps understand by religion the cult of your own unlimited authority and governmental wisdom?” This recalls Kant’s scepticism about faith as the ground for political life, expressed in his Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason (1781): 

Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty commonly seek to exempt themselves from it [criticism]. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves, and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination. 

Arnold Ruge wrote in 1838 that “if the state contains within itself, as does Prussia, a reforming principle, then there is neither the necessity nor the possibility of revolution.” The young Marx’s articles in the Rheinische Zeitung suggest that, even after Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s coronation, he agreed that forceful criticism precluded any need for violent revolution.

So why did Marx ditch the Bauerian line of polemical criticism and adopt the more revolutionary belief in direct action with which he is now associated? Historian Gareth Stedman-Jones discusses Marx’s “lurch” towards communism in the winter of 1843-1844. Among the main reasons for his break with Bauer’s philosophy of critical republicanism, he argues, was “the failure of the politics of self-consciousness to bring about any change in the policies of the state.” There was no better indicator of this than the rising tide of censorship. The finest, most biting criticism in the world was powerless in the face of an overmighty state, despite Bauer’s optimism in his 1840 letter to Marx about the intellectual frailty of the government’s defenders. In the end, it was not the religious state that collapsed in accord with Bauer’s prophecy, but the Young Hegelians themselves who perished. All it took was for their movement to collide with practical state power. The “feebleness” of the reaction to the suppression of the Rheinische Zeitung in March 1843 is held up by Stedman-Jones as an essential factor in Marx’s “disenchantment with the strategy of ‘criticism.’” Criticism had flourished at Berlin in the late 1830s, as Feuerbach explained to his father: “in no other university does such general industry rule, such striving for knowledge, such peace and quiet as here.” No wonder Bauer’s faith in philosophical criticism could be sustained in this environment. Marx was clearly attracted to it himself at the Doktorklub. But mainstream scholarship on the issue tends to hold that Bauerian criticism could not last in the more intolerant atmosphere over which the Prussian state presided in the 1840s and that Marx accordingly abandoned ship. 

Indeed, political theorist David McLellan dates Marx’s intellectual relationship with Bauer between 1838-1842, the Prussian state’s January 1843 order that the Rheinische Zeitung be closed down by March acting as the effective curtain on their political alliance. But between 1838-’42, McLellan argues, “the series of letters that Bauer wrote to Marx … shows how close their collaboration was.” Indeed so, but what about the letters Marx was writing to other people? Addressing Ruge in November 1842, a few months before the suppression of the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx can be found expressing distinctly anti-Bauerian positions that McLellan dates to later in 1843-1844. It was at this point, McLellan suggests, that Marx in opposition to Bauer came to believe that “the secularisation of the state is not sufficient to achieve this [the abolition of religious ideas] nor is it sufficient to free man from his real servitude.” McLellan goes on, quoting from Marx’s article Zur Judenfrage (1844) in the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbucher as supportive of the view that Marx began to distance himself from Bauer at around this time: “the root of this servitude is not religious alienation but political alienation: ‘We do not see in religion the foundation, but only the manifestation of secular deficiencies.’” Yet in Marx’s aforementioned letter to Ruge, written two years earlier in November 1842, the very same anti-Bauerian thoughts are expressed: “religion,” Marx says, “should be criticised in the framework of criticism of political conditions rather than that political conditions should be criticised in the framework of religion.” In other words, Marx had already written privately that secularizing the state, as Bauer wished to do, is not sufficient to eliminate alienation from the heart of man, since to do so would address only the psychological symptoms as opposed to their real-world political cause: “for religion,” Marx elaborates, “in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to the earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself.” Bauer’s religious criticism, Marx seems to be telling Ruge in late 1842, is too bound to abstractions to grasp the real cause of the alienation that religion tries to cure with fantasy: the inadequacy of secular politics.

Marx’s hostility to the Prussian state is on full display throughout the years 1842-1843, but a thoroughgoing class-based analysis—and still less any suggestion to abolish the state altogether—is not discernible. Moreover, he remained surprisingly sceptical of communism during this period (“I regard it as inappropriate, indeed even immoral, to smuggle communist and socialist doctrines, hence a new world outlook, into incidental theatrical criticisms, etc., and that I demand a quite different and more thorough discussion of communism, if it should be discussed at all …”) while also on his way thinking, contrary to Bauer, that religious faith must be criticized not on an abstract philosophical plane, but in terms of its politically conditioned origins.

Of course, the 1843 censorship instruction infuriated Marx, but there was another sense in which, as he himself put it in a letter to Ruge, “the government has given me back my freedom.” In the same letter he also confesses to a certain weariness with the game of criticism. “I had begun to be stifled in that atmosphere,” he admits to Ruge. “It is a bad thing to have to perform menial duties even for the sake of freedom; to fight with pinpricks, instead of with clubs. I have become tired of hypocrisy, stupidity, gross arbitrariness, and of our bowing and scraping, dodging, and hair-splitting over words.”

The truth is that Marx, even into the second half of 1843, still lacked well-organised convictions about the future. As late as September of that year, he wrote to Ruge: 

If there is no doubt about the past and where we come from there is great confusion when it comes to defining the goal to reach. Not only does a general anarchy reign among the reformers, but each has to admit to himself that he has no clear idea of what his programme ought to be. 

Overall, close analysis of Marx’s output during the years 1842-1843 reveals an unresolved tension between his public Bauerian commitments and his private doubts. Marx’s thinking on the state had not yet matured. Censorship did not motivate his break with Bauer; it merely solidified a philosophical drift from his mentor that was already underway and gave Marx the opportunity, or indeed the “freedom” as he put it in his January 1843 letter to Ruge, to develop a clearer, more comprehensive theory of the state that would bring an end to the “general anarchy” among Prussia’s Bewegungspartei. Exactly how this newfound freedom should be exercised was not yet obvious, but Marx lost no time trying to find out. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are subject to deletion if they are not germane. I have no problem with a bit of colourful language, but blasphemy or depraved profanity will not be allowed. Attacks on the Catholic Faith will not be tolerated. Comments will be deleted that are republican (Yanks! Note the lower case 'r'!), attacks on the legitimacy of Pope Francis as the Vicar of Christ (I know he's a material heretic and a Protector of Perverts, and I definitely want him gone yesterday! However, he is Pope, and I pray for him every day.), the legitimacy of the House of Windsor or of the claims of the Elder Line of the House of France, or attacks on the legitimacy of any of the currently ruling Houses of Europe.