By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Following the “Young Hegelians” who came immediately after Hegel and as part of their crew of arguers and debaters, Marx came to understand Hegel’s work as offering a new philosophical vision for the shape of understanding the world and also guiding human action within it. But, in a very fundamental manner, Marx understands the world “materially”— that human history is shaped by material conditions of existence.
Marx and Religion
Marx came to see or believe that religion was nothing but alienated human longing. But that doesn’t mean that Marx didn’t appreciate its power; far from it. He thought that religion had been the most powerful reality in human history, precisely because it had been the consequential and structure of the way that humans thought about the problem of evil.
But as history moved on, things were changing in Marx’s own time, and history was changing precisely because humans were coming to self-conscious awareness of their own power and their own capacities to change the world and themselves. This is the motivating point behind Marx’s famous claim: “Up to now, all the philosophers have done is interpret the world. The point, however, is to change it.”
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
For Marx, the crucial fact about history and its processes is that it is the working out of the species being of humanity; the yet unknown human nature whose dialectical self-unfolding is driving history itself. The important difference between Hegel and Marx, then, is that for Hegel, history is fundamentally a story told about somebody else; it’s about God coming to maturation and self-realization. For Marx, it is about the self-realization of humanity.
In a way, this is a throwback to the Enlightenment’s optimism of the will; the idea that in the end, sheer human effort is the one thing that will save us. But it’s also the fact that force, the human will, is in fact powerful enough to do this salvation; and not just hypothetically powerful enough, but inevitably powerful enough. More so even than Hegel, Marx thought he understood in fairly concrete specificity how human history would come to its culmination over the next century or so, and what the end of history would in fact look like.
Learn more about Hegel’s view of history.
Marx was a 19th-century German thinker who spent much of his adult life in exile in London. He himself felt the pain of the social evils his work talked about and his work struggled so fiercely and so profoundly to overcome.
The details of his life are relatively simple: He was born in 1818 in Trier, in the German Rhineland states, the palatinate states, and he died in 1883 in London. He and his wife Jenny had seven children, but only three lived to adulthood: one died at age eight, two died aged one year old, and one died at two days old, before he even had a name. Experiences like that would give you a taste for the evils of early industrialized society.
With Marx we have a story of someone whose very family bears the cost of his own struggles to understand what was going on in his day. Much of his income in his life came from two sources. One was his friend, Friedrich Engels, who had a certain amount of money from his wealthy family of industrialists. Marx also was a very good and successful journalist. He was one of the most important journalists of the 1850s, ’60s, and ’70s and he made a good deal of money that way.
A Practical Response to Evil
Karl Marx is not a theoretical innovator in thinking about evil; rather, he’s an exemplary figure for a practical response. He was Hegelian in imagining that the resolution of the problem of evil is one fundamental dimension of the goal of human history; one crucial aspect of what history intends to be. But he differs from Hegel in some very important ways. Most immediately—and pretty importantly—his, unlike Hegel’s view, was a “materialist” understanding of human history.
People talk about “materialism” all the time nowadays; Marx means something very central by it. He means that not ideas, but material circumstances determine human thought and action; that is to say, ideas come from material conditions, from a cultural location, not the other way round. It was the printing press, Marx pointed out, which enabled the spread of Martin Luther’s ideas and their fertilization of minds all across Europe.
Learn more about Martin Luther’s view of evil.
The Importance of Material Conditions
This is not a flat-footed claim that no one can think beyond their material conditions or that everyone is constrained by their immediate surroundings to only be able to think thoughts that are only acceptable to those people in those surroundings. This is not meant to be a constraining doctrine, but simply a statement of how thinking is never totally free from our material conditions, the facts of the way we live our lives. Without the right material conditions, Marx believed, people can’t think the new thoughts that revolutionize those very material conditions themselves.
A thinker like Isaac Newton needed a certain background, culture of education, and a certain amount of wealth in order to acquire the education that enabled him to generate the thoughts that led to first of all calculus, and then to the Principia, his mathematical modeling of the physical basis of reality. Then that model of the physical basis of reality had to be transformed into a structure that other people could understand and appreciate; and then it had to be published; and there had to be people capable of understanding and reading it.
All those things are not just ideas, those are material realities. It’s quite possible for people to have great thoughts but not have ways to express them or have people who could receive them. Our thoughts are not totally unconstrained; they’re shaped, formed, by what we have been taught, by what we can imagine, and by what others can receive from us.
Common Questions about Karl Marx and the Material Conditions of Human History
Marx thought that religion had been the most powerful reality in human history, precisely because it had been the consequential and structure of the way humans thought about the problem of evil.
The important difference between Hegel and Marx is that for Hegel, history is fundamentally a story told about somebody else; it’s about God coming to maturation and self-realization. For Marx, it is about the self-realization of humanity.
Marx believes that material circumstances and not ideas determine human thought and action, ideas come from material conditions, from a cultural location, not the other way round.