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. . .”