Ideal Superstructures

by Derek Sayer

Marx, of course, held a materialist view of consciousness. For him, ‘life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life’ (1846a: 38). In the words of the 1859 Preface, ‘it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness’ (1859a). The problem, however, is what exactly Marx meant by such claims. A common interpretation, epitomized in the works of Plekhanov or the younger Lenin, is to read Marx as inverting the primacy of the ‘ideal’ — consciousness, thought, ideas — over the ‘material’ world (allegedly) asserted in German idealist, and particularly Hegelian and post-Hegelian philosophy. Where Hegel held that the ideal determined the material, Marx argued the contrary. In a famous formulation, he found the Hegelian dialectic ‘standing on its head’, and turned it ‘right side up again’ (1873: 20). Marx was thus like his materialist philosophical precursors in that, in Lenin’s words, he ‘takes matter as primary and regards consciousness, thought, sensations, as secondary’ (1908: 46). His specific novelty, and debt to Hegel, consists in conceiving of matter itself ‘dialectically’.

In my view, Marx’s critique of idealism involves something quite different from, and very much more radical than, this straightforward inversion of idealism’s supposed order of priorities, and the inversion metaphor is in important ways misleading. What Marx does, in criticizing Hegel and his ‘left’ followers — Stirner, Bauer, and the rest — is first and foremost to deny the very existence of the ‘ideal’ as a separable entity. The ‘cunning of reason’, the ‘spirit of the age’, Hegel’s Weltgeist, the Young Hegelians’ ‘self-consciousness’, and so on, cannot for Marx be the subjects of history for the simple reason that they do not exist. They are reifications: philosophers’ fictions, abstractions made flesh, speculative constructions, just like in the ‘fruit’ example we considered in the last chapter. Marx’s central criticism of idealist history is that it is ‘an imagined activity of imagined subjects’ (1846a: 38).

He ridicules what is involved in thus being ‘German, profound and speculative’ (ibid.: 542) on numerous occasions. The most famous of these is probably The Holy Family’s discussion of ‘the mystery of speculative construction’, on which I drew in the last chapter. Here is another such recipe: 

The whole trick of proving the hegemony of the spirit in history . . . is . confined to the following three efforts.

No. 1. One must separate the ideas of those ruling for empirical reasons, under empirical conditions and as empirical individuals, from these actual rulers, and thus recognise the rule of ideas and illusions in history.

No. 2. One must bring an order into this rule of ideas, prove a mystical connection among the successive ruling ideas, which is managed by regarding them as ‘acts of self-determination on the part of the concept’ . . .

No. 3. To remove the mystical appearance of this ‘self-determining concept’, it is changed into a person — ‘Self-consciousness’ — or, to appear thoroughly materialistic . . . into the ‘thinkers’, the ‘philosophers’, the ideologists, who are once again understood as the manufacturers of history. (1846a: 64)

With such ‘conjuring tricks’ (ibid.: 131), consciousness ceases to be an attribute of real individuals, and is instead transformed into an independently-acting historical subject in its own right, the ‘spirit of the age’, or whatever. The concept of an attribute is mistakenly concretized as an entity. In Marx’s words, ‘first of all, an abstraction is made from a fact; then it is declared that the fact is based upon the abstraction’ (ibid.: 542).

Marx’s denial of the determining role of the ideal in history, then, is based on a prior denial of the very existence of the ideal as a separable entity. Consciousness is precisely not a thing in itself, and the fundamental error of the idealists is to treat it as such, to attribute to ‘conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness . . . an independent existence’ (ibid.: 30, emphasis added). Where for idealism ‘the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual’, Marx’s starting-point is ‘the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness’ (ibid.: 38). Consciousness is ‘my relationship to my surroundings’ (ibid.: 42), it ‘can never be anything else than conscious existence’ (ibid.: 37). These passages all come from The German Ideology. But nearly 30 years later, in that same text in which Marx speaks of setting the Hegelian dialectic ‘right side up again’, his criticism is exactly the same — that the ideal subject of Hegel’s historiography is a purely fictitious one:

To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought. (1873: 19)

Idealism’s historical subjects are constituted by first abstracting, then reifying what is in fact merely a predicate — consciousness — of real subjects. But Marx’s critique is less an inversion of the subject/predicate relation than an insistence that such predicates cannot, in the nature of things, be subjects at all. The only subjects of history, he insists, are ‘real, living individuals’ themselves.

The quotations I have given so far argue the fictitious status of the ideal, which is my main concern in this chapter given that Marx and Engels repeatedly qualified ‘superstructures’ thus. But it is equally important to realize that the other term in the equation — the ‘material’ — is also and ipso facto transformed. If consciousness ceases to be regarded as ‘a living individual’, but instead is recognized as an attribute or predicate of ‘real living individuals’ themselves, then the material existence of these individuals can no longer be conceptualized in ways which exclude their consciousness. The material premiss from which historical materialism starts is not, abstractly, ‘matter’, as opposed to ‘spirit’ (or Lenin’s ‘consciousness, thought, sensations’). It is ‘real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live’ (1846a: 31) — real individuals who are amongst other things conscious, and act on the basis of their conceptions. We have seen that such purposeful action is what for Marx defines labour as a distinctively human activity, and differentiates it from superficially analogous phenomena, like the ‘labours’ of bees and beavers, elsewhere in the natural world (above, p. 28).

This is, of course, the burden of Marx’s famous Theses on Feuerbach. The fault in Feuerbach’s materialism (which among other things renders it ahistorical) is that ‘the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object. . . but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively’. This ‘active side was developed abstractly by idealism’ (1845b). Stirner’s understanding of ‘matter’ is similarly dismissed as an ‘abstraction, an idea’ (1846a: 109), empiricism branded as ‘still abstract’ because it treats history as a collection of ‘dead facts’ (ibid.: 38), and ‘so-called objective historiography’ denounced as ‘reactionary’ because it apprehends ‘the historical conditions independent of activity’ (ibid.: 52). A quarter of a century later, Marx was to reiterate this dismissive characterization of ‘objective historiography’ in connection with a reissue of his Eighteenth Brumaire, a text concerned centrally with the puzzle of how an individual, Louis Bonaparte, could come to play the central historical role he did (1869: 144).

Marx is precisely unlike his materialist precursors in his inclusion, within what he understood as the realm of material life, of those attributes of human beings — the ‘active side’ — which were previously separated off under the illusory guise of the ideal. Indeed, what he retained from the idealist tradition, whilst resituating it in terms of the natural history of humanity rather than the biography of spirit, was a conception of the internality of the relation between what Spinoza called thought and extension. The reason inversion is so inadequate a metaphor for this critique should by now be evident. The metaphor suggests a simple reversal of terms — ‘material’ and ‘ideal’ — which leaves their referents intact. But what Marx actually does is to challenge these terms themselves. He denies the validity of the distinction of material and ideal, as previously drawn — including by materialists — in the first place, and it is the presumed separability of the two which forms the specific target of his attack. Material and ideal can be separated, for the social world, only at the cost of the ‘abstraction’ or reification of both.

SOURCE: Sayer, Derek. The Violence of Abstraction: The Analytic Foundations of Historical Materialism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. (Ideas) From chapter 4, pp. 84-88, sans footnotes.

See also:

Godelier, Maurice. The Mental & the Material: Thought Economy & Society, translated by Martin Thom. London; New York: Verso, 1986 (1988).

God or Labor: The Two Camps
by M. Bakunin

Ideology Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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Uploaded: 6 September 2001
Reference added 10 September 2020

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