Some passing thoughts on the materialist conception of history

I like the way the snow crunches under my feet in the night. There is no echo but the sound is anything but dead. I also like the way the old buildings of the St. George campus peer down at me in the dark. They feel Old World though they fall far short of the mark. I am on my way to teach a grad seminar. However, I am lost—on purpose. I still get a thrill ambling around this campus. I wonder to myself, how did this happen? How did I end up here? Why do I feel so different? The crisp air bites at my cheeks and I relish the sensation.

I have been revisiting Marx’s The German Ideology these past few weeks. Written sometime around 1845, Marx and Engels failed to find a publisher for their manuscript. In fact, it would not appear for public consumption until the 1930s, having been abandoned “to the gnawing criticism of the mice…” Here we find, what may be, the most detailed exposition of the materialist conception of history. Subsequent theorists have occasionally abused Marx’s theory of history, most often by selectively applying the theory to a narrow range of phenomena as a means of advancing notions of domination. In the process all manner of subjectivity is excluded from analysis, save that of Capital, capital C, that most useful devil. Still, I believe that a much more fruitful approach to the materialist conception of history is possible. Rather than merely assigning subjectivity to the useful devil capital C, the materialist conception of history can serve to focus attention on the progressive potentialities and limitations of everyday life and people. I have a visceral sense of this as I walk through the narrow corridors of this dark campus.

The German Ideology is a sometimes satirical sometimes polemical critique of contemporary German philosophy. In the mid-19th century German intellectuals were busy employing the nuts and bolts of Hegel’s system of everything to mount radical critiques of religion and politics. Among these Young Hegelians was Ludwig Feuerbach who argued that God was an outward expression of humankind’s inward consciousness. In essence, he asserted that the imaginary world of western religion was a type of self-alienation from the real world of subjective human experience. Though sympathetic to Feuerbach’s critical position, Marx criticized him for resolving this alienation by falling back on abstract and universal constructions of human subjectivity. Marx appreciated the materiality of Feuerbach’s work but was not satisfied with his emphasis on religion as the motive force behind society. Instead, Marx postulated that the real essence of human subjectivity lies in “the ensemble of the social relations.”

These social relations form the core of the materialist conception of history. Marx asserted that humans distinguished themselves from animals the moment they were able to produce the means of subsistence. This is the genuine exit from the garden—the origin of human history. Who we are is conditioned by what and how we produce. That is to say, the nature of humanity coincides with the material conditions of production. And in our time, as in Marx’s, the capitalist social relation is ascendant. So the what and how we produce is chiefly about the production of human subjectivity as opposed to widgets. Now the trick—and where so many theorists preoccupied with domination fail—is to recognize that this is not the only game in town. The dominant class does not appropriate all of the value from the social surplus. Domination and resistance are not external to each other. And as counterintuitive as it may sound, power can only be exercised over free subjects. Who I am as an individual is conditioned by a great combination of particular and abstract social relations. Within the ensemble of the social relations I find tools for subversion as well as my own shackles to the dominant class interests. It is an incredibly rich and complex tableau where reductive theories of dominated subjectivity do little to further our understanding of the contingent nature of the social system.

As I walk to class I have an instinctive and lived sense of Marx’s materialist conception. I realize I have changed since coming here. The product of the grand collaborations among humans is not simple commodities, dull and inanimate. The product is humanity itself. The what and how of these grand collaborations condition our perception of the range of possibilities for us as a species and as individuals. The orientation of my subjectivity is different in Toronto than it was in Austin. In other words, my fundamental bearing was altered the moment I arrived in this new place. The rules and resources that confront me here are different. I sense new opportunities for growth. I have economic security, an intellectually stimulating and tolerant work environment, and a cadre of emotionally and spiritually healthy friends that are unique to this particular place and time of my life. My ideal inner self enjoys a greater symmetry with the social structures I confront in my immediate lived experience.

Class is over now. The air has stilled, robbing my face of even more of its warmth. I walk with a small group of students to a nearby pub for more discussion. I feel at peace, knowing I am right where I am supposed to be. I did not change who I am by intellectual dint alone. There was a materiality that had to be heeded. That is to say, personal growth requires attention to the locus of our subjectivity within the ensemble of the social relations. Different circuits need to be activated. Some dispatched to dormancy. Maybe it’s a job. Maybe it’s friends or peers. Maybe it’s a whole community. Or just one bad apple. There are countless circumstances functioning to expand and diminish our field of being. A single experience can rescue subjectivity from a lifetime of domination but it can never condemn it. As I look around the table at the faces in the soft amber light of the pub I catch glimpses of the promises and impediments conditioning our conversation. And I see myself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>