‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, it is their social existence that determines their consciousness’
Karl Marx’s philosophy owes much to Hegel, from whom he borrowed the notion of ‘dialectic’. However, Marx rejects Hegel’s idealism and his notion of truth unfolding towards the Absolute, in favour of a purely ‘atheistic ‘dialectical’ materialism. Central to Marx’s analysis and political philosophy is the critique of the role of the function of religion. According to Marx, humans make their own religion, and those who look for a transcendental being are merely projecting concepts of themselves onto a blank canvas. For Marx, religion is ‘the opium of the people’: a pacifying drug to keep them happy and in chains. Real happiness, he says, can only be achieved by exposing religion as illusory and thus abolishing it. The task of philosophy, he maintains, is to establish truth in the world.
For Marx, then, the fundamental condition of humanity is the need to convert the raw material of the natural world into goods necessary for survival. Consequently, production, or economics, is the primary conditioning factor of life. Taking it from a historical perspective, he says, ‘The handmill gives a society with a feudal lord; the steam-mill a society with an industrial capitalist’.
According to Marx’s dialectical materialism, there is a triad of conflict between economic classes. The landowners created by feudalism (thesis) were opposed to the rise of the middle classes (antithesis), forcing a synthesis which emerged as a new economic class, the industrial employers of capitalism. However, this new capitalist class, which now becomes the thesis, generates the antithetical force of the proletariat, or working class. Out of which emerges the synthesis which is socialism. Socialism, for Marx, is a natural development of the economic conditions operating on the human being. It is in Marx’s materialism that we see a reversal of Hegel’s idealism. Whereas Hegel’s history of ideas insists that it is a dialectic progress of concepts – developments in human understanding – that fuel social and political change, Marx insists that it is transformation in economics that give rise to new ways of thinking, to the development of ideas. For Marx, the mind does not exist as a passive subject in an external world, as the prevailing empiricist tradition emanating from Locke had held. For Marx, as it is for Kant, the mind is actively engaged with the objects of knowledge. However, where Kant proposed that the mind imposes certain structures on our ever changing experiences, Marx held that we order our experience in practical ways, so as to make it useful to our survival.
Marx developed two important insights: (i) that economics is the chief form of human alienation, and (ii) the material force needed to liberate humanity from its domination by economics is to be found in the working class. Economic change, for Marx, is generated at grass root level, rather than from the top.