Yes, I can understand your predicament. There are those among us, wolves in sheep’s clothing who would inform the world about communism as if they in fact knew what it is, as if they had displaced the originals, Marx and Engels. Oh sure they’ll argue that Marx and Engels time is over, that they were men of their age and that we live in a different world with a different set of problems, needing other solutions than those present to us by the Marx and Engels. But do we? Have we really gone beyond the truths that they lived and enacted in their lives and writings? Bosh! Hogwash! May such imposters as these be plowed under for all their revisionist horseshit for the world to see: to see that they are liars, one and all.
You say I’m a little too angry, that I should take a deep breath and forgive these well-meaning purveyors of communist ideas. I’ll not truck with such as these I tell you. From Kautsky on the world has been filled with re-visioning transformations of Marx and Engels original materialist and empirical ideas to the point that they are hardly recognizable. In fact one could strip the libraries of everything written since Kautsky except for a very small minority of thinkers and burn the lot without losing anything. The 20th Century failed communism, communism did not fail the 20th Century peoples of the earth. Why? Because they had not truly learned the harsh truths that Marx and Engels relayed to them in their writings.
But, you ask, what truths are we speaking of?
Well let’s start with that work that from the beginning has been scoffed, derided, and … ah, critiqued… and, dare I say, dismissed: The German Ideology. “The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises… They are the real individuals,their activity and the material conditions of their life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.” (pp. 36-37)1
Open your eyes and read that again… premises that are not abstract, not some figment of an Idealist philosopher’s (think Hegel) imagination or concept, but “real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life”, existing and produced by their own activity. Here it is: real flesh and blood humans going about their daily lives working, producing, living… and, all this analyzed and confirmed by careful empirical study. Not some armchair study by an Idealist philosopher contemplating the discourse of others, but instead actual men and women in the field studying the very processes of material existence around them and developing their concepts from those very material conditions rather than from some airy fairy notions built up out of a platonic world of Ideas.
Let’s face it Marx and Engels were living in a society in which the fabled Hegel reigned with all his absolutes and idealist notions. Yes, yes, his shadow was the dark inverted ghost that haunted even Marx and Engels, but only as they shed its broken visage for the real movement of the world. Listen to what they say:
The Young-Hegelian ideologists, in spite of their allegedly “world-shattering” phrases, are the staunchest conservatives. The most recent of them have found the correct expression for their activity when they declare they are only fighting against “phrases;”. They forget, however, that they themselves are opposing nothing but phrases to these phrases, and that they are in no way combating the real existing world when they are combating solely the phrases of this world.(36)
Do you understand? These idealists opposed concepts to concepts as if those very Ideas were more real that the world below their feet. It’s this notion that Ideas are more important the actual lived lives of human and non-human existence that Marx and Engel attacked these middle-class (bourgeois) thinkers. Instead Marx and Engels would go into the streets, go where humans lived, seek an understanding of their work, play, etc. and begin from this material existence rather than from a battle of ideas (“phrases”). It’s the real unique individuals that live and die that matter to Marx and Engels, and dam the lot of Idealists who play word games in their solitary Towers of Learning.
In fact they say as much:
The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself—geological, oro-hydrographical, climatic and so on. All historical writing must set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.(37)
Do you see? Hell long before all those scientific thinkers and geo-philosophers, or onto-cartographers, etc. who are mapping the naturalist underpinnings and conditions of human and non-human existence Marx and Engels had already said, yes, we know, we see, one always begins with that knowledge in the background that the “historical writing must set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men”. Dam… even they did not stop and say, oh by the way we start from economics, no – they knew one must start from the very primal conditions of economics which is the natural world that gives rise to it rather than from some abstraction of these relations.
Already I am bogged down, I know, I know… I’m long winded, but the truth is that one need to read these works passage by passage, paragraph by paragraph, make notations, link these very real words back to the material world out of which they were constructed. If one doesn’t take the time to work through these early notions then one will become confused later on and misunderstand just what Marx and Engels were getting at. So, yes, I’m long winded, and a little obtuse. Forgive an old man who too much in so little.
Yes, yes, people should be able to figure these things out for themselves. I agree, but how many times have we had conversations in certain meeting halls among supposed comrades and gotten into arguments over such simple issues as these. Most of the time through patience and calmness I’ve been able to show these angry young men how to slow down and read closely, to methodically think through what is being presented.
Reading used to be an art form, one that requires careful appraisal and certain amount of skepticism as well as critical understanding, and judgment or evaluation. And like many things it develops over time as one’s grasp of material existence does. That’s why one should return to these early texts every so many years and reread them, because one will come across certain phrases that had in earlier reading been troubling or misunderstood and will now suddenly light up with the full pressure of the mind as it understands for the first time the truth of a particular idea.
Have these ideas changed? No. Only the real material individual has changed. They have now lived through these truths and have made them their own and now understand what was once only an abstract notion. We could say this is the abstract real in material existence. A level of abstraction that has taken up into its inner life the truth of material existence and thereby become real. That is the difference between Idealism and Materialism. For Idealists Ideas exist as archetypal creatures with a life of their own that descend upon humans from some other more real realm, while for a materialist ideas are our lived lives made real through inscription from these base relations. Ideas are not incarnated in the flesh, rather they are created out of very real material relations and inscribed in the memory systems we as humans communicate to each other.
So we start with material existence itself, not Ideas. As Marx and Engels say it:
Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their material life. The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the means of subsistence they actually find in existence and have to reproduce.(37)
Humans are the animal that work. Other animals work, of course. All animals have to eat and feed their young to live. So animals either eat other animals, or they eat plant life. But humans discovered something others did not, they learned how to reproduce the product that would support them in their endeavors to exist. Through the replanting of seeds, and animal husbandry (i.e., the taming of wild beasts: cattle, sheep, dogs, cats, etc.) they were able to produce and reproduce the material subsistence needed to live. Yet, this material existence based on the reproduction of material crops and animals varied across the planet, and from these material relations the many different social relations that we see in history up to our own time show us this various heritage.
Yet, as they say this “mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the 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” (37). The point of this is that the social lives of individuals resembles the very material relations and conditions of production around which they construct their social existence. But such obvious difference between crop bearing peoples and hunter and gatherer societies that the anthropologists have uncovered only fill in the gaps that Marx and Engels set down long ago. The main point is that individual humans are marked by their material conditions of production, even their habits, ideas, communicative technologies (intercourse) etc. are conditioned by these material productions rather than the other way around. Humans everywhere started with what was at hand, the material world in which they existed and learned from the very conditions in which they found themselves how to survive. Even their ability to communicate with each other and others that they met in the world arose out of this material matrix of information over time.
Nothing was ever whole cloth. No. The rise and population of the earth by humans took tens of thousands of years, with so many material variations one wonders how we ever survived this long. But here we are blanketing the globe oblivious for the most part to our earlier ties to the very real material worlds of plant and animal, to the non-human realm of climate and geology that surrounds us. We seem to think we are beyond the material base that supports us. We are not. We are dependent on this base for all our resources, as are those non-humans we share this world with. And we are at that point where through the power of technology and a run away system of economics about to tip the balance of those very resources upon which we all depend – if we haven’t already… but that’s another letter.
I think we’ve said enough for now.
1. Marx, Karl; Friedrich Engels (2011-10-24). The German Ideology, including Theses on Feuerbach (Great Books in Philosophy) . Prometheus Books – A. Kindle Edition.