Not a Marxist, Revisited

Karl Marx, in his early (1845-46) manuscript The German Ideology, argues that “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production musst not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production” (150). Am I reading this correctly, in understanding that Marx’s argument is that economic activity produces individual subjectivity? In understanding that, essentially, how you labor determines who you are?

Certainly, this isn’t surprising — considering what I know secondhand of Marx’s thought — but I’m happy to finally find firsthand textual evidence for it. This helps me to understand how class, as a function of economics, can serve as a category of identity politics: an obvious connection, perhaps, but one I’m happy to find confirmed in Marx’s thought. It seems sensible, too; sensible enough that I can’t really even imagine most who buy more into the neoclassical economic ways of thinking having difficulty with it.

But maybe that’s a bit of theoretical blindness on my part. Perhaps those opposed to Marx invert the causality, and say that who you are determines how you work, rather than the other way around.

Marx continues: “Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production. The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they really are; i.e., as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will”, so that “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life”, so that “Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behavior” (154). Ideology, philosophy, creativity, socialization, democracy: these are not transcendent abstractions, but concrete products of how we live and work. Marx’s project here seems profoundly anti-Cartesian and anti-Platonic, which I like very much; he combines Aristotle’s blunt, hard-nosed empiricism with the skepticism and contingency of Isocrates. And so he makes it harder and harder for me to continue to say, “I’m not a Marxist, but. . .”

Not a Marxist, Revisited

4 thoughts on “Not a Marxist, Revisited

  • February 24, 2004 at 8:34 am

    FWIW, Neil Postman refers to one line from The German Ideology in Technopoly: “As individuals express their life, so they are” (21). He attaches this concept to McLuhen and Thamus, but he does it briefly, without much development. The development of this idea goes, “By connecting technological conditions to symbolic life and pyschic habits, Marx was doing nothing unusual” (24). But I think you’re saying (and I agree), that we should explore this rationale in light of rhetorical theory (which just might engulf “symbolic life” and “psychic habits”).

    It’s fresh at my attention because I’m using Technopoly this semester, and the “as indiviuals” line from Marx set in action a fair amount of classroom fluster over what it might mean. We started to talk about labor in less neatly economic terms such as “occupation” or “what we do,” which turned to some discussion of rhetoric, and, I think, some interesting ways about thinking about technology (broadly) as forms which induce expressive occupation and, accordingly, which proliferate (new and different?) rhetorical relationships. Dunno if this is helpful, but your entry echoed what I’d just read and watched unfold in EN106; figured I’d share.

  • February 24, 2004 at 9:32 pm


    Thanks for the feedback — I picked up Postman from the library today, on your recommendation. It’s a useful connection, I think, and Postman seems to make it more explicit. (And, re your other comment on Balkanization — please, don’t call it “butting in”; I’m really grateful for the comments.)

  • March 4, 2004 at 2:38 pm

    production, I think marx was trying to say, circumscribed an area around the worker that served as a summation of his experience. New materials, new markets; etc. As far as “producing” subjectivity I will not comment, but I think Marx’s passage is to be taken in the literal, world-as-content/content=perception kinda way. But hey, I’d love to see some more notes on the subject.

  • March 4, 2004 at 2:42 pm

    wait……. I think he’s doing away with subjectivity completely; what is, is expression. sounds familiar, or no?

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