26 September 2010

Theses on Feuerbach

The Classics, Part 1, Beginnings

Marx: Theses on Feuerbach

New course, “The Classics”, Introduction

Four courses have been run through the SADTU Political Education Forum so far in 2010. These were “Basics”, “National Democratic Revolution”, “State and Revolution” and “Development, Rural and Urban”. In future, we will hold four ten-week courses per year to be sufficient, but in this opening year we need to do one more course, and we have time to do it. The course is on “The Classics”. It is being done for the first time, so comments and criticisms from subscribers will be more than usually welcome.

There is no last word on what “The Classics” are, or might be. There is no attempt here to lay down a definitive, prescriptive “canon”. Instead, what we will be doing is creating a skeleton or framework around which individuals might wish to build or to flesh out their own ideas of what “The Classics” consist of.

We will go from Marx and Engels in the mid-1840s to Lenin, Luxemburg and Gramsci, towards the mid-1920s. We will use some material that already appears in our other courses, together with works that have not yet been used in any of these courses, but which are “classics” nonetheless.

Lenin in his “The State and Revolution” (a classic, and itself a review of the classics) wrote that in his opinion “The Poverty of Philosophy”, written and published in 1847, is “the first mature work of Marxism”. But we will begin in Brussels, Belgium, in early 1845, shortly after Marx and Engels had (in Paris, in August 1844) teamed up. As we know, they stuck together until death parted them. We will begin with the short piece of work by Karl Marx that is known as the “Theses on Feuerbach” (named as such by Frederick Engels, and published by him in 1888, five years after the death of Karl Marx).

Theses on Feuerbach

Any one of the eleven short Theses on Feuerbach (download linked below) would be adequate on its own as a topic for discussion in a study circle. The most famous of them is the last one, and justifiably so:

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

This shows Marx in 1845 as being firmly in the camp of those humanists for whom the active, free-willing Subject is the centre and the starting point of all philosophy and all politics. It puts Marx in the opposite camp from those “materialists” who regard the human as derivative of, and secondary to, the purely physical. Marx never shifted from this strong and logical position. Marx poses the Subject in a dialectical relation with the Objective universe, but the Subject is the one with the initiative. The Subject makes things happen. The Subject can change the world – and that’s the point.

This is different from the idealism that ignores the material world, and it is equally different from the materialism that prioritises the mechanical over the mental. Thus, Marx settles the controversy over “dialectical materialism” right here, at the beginning.

Feuerbach’s intervention into the philosophical debates of the early 1840s created a sensation in the intellectual crucible that included Marx and Engels as well as the “Young Hegelians” with whom Marx and Engels were in the process of falling out.

Reading the eleven “Theses” reveals that Marx immediately recognised Feuerbach as a materialist, but also that he at once rejected Feuerbach’s particular and limited kind of anti-religious materialism.

Thesis number two says that truth is a practical question. This is something that is repeated later on in the “classics” of Marxism. This again reinforces the assertion that the world or universe is a human world or universe. “It is men who change circumstances” says Marx in the third Thesis, and “human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”

The subsequent Theses develop this understand through to Thesis 10 which says: The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity.”

This is a good reminder that for Marx in particular, the term “civil society” only means “bourgeois society”, and that therefore for Marxists, “civil society” is something to be overcome and transcended, and not something to be put on a pedestal and worshipped.

Image: Karl Marx being arrested in Brussels, 1840s.

Please download and read this very short text:

Further reading: