One source of opposition to systematic ideology is the theory that, in the words of Karl Marx: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” (1) The view of s.i. as asserting that consciousness determines existence is of course a misconception – it is characteristic of ideological processes that they are largely not present to consciousness – hut here we want to tackle the marxist theory directly, bringing forward two reasons for holding it to be at best of limited value.
There are other, more extended, statements in which this theory is put in a more restrained way, existence being said to determine consciousness only “fundamentally” or “in the last analysis,” but it is consistently held that the two do not stand on level ground; it is existence that determines consciousness rather than consciousness that determines existence.
The first reason for treating this theory with reserve is that, in the century and more since it was put forward, it has become increasingly clear that the predictions to which leads are unlikely to be realised; where its professed, adherents have won power, Russia and China being the outstanding examples, the outcome has not met the expectations of either its originators or its supporters. (Or, we may add, the fears of its opponents).
Marx and Engels and their colleagues, and the Old Bolsheviks also, were enthusiastic for internationalism and intellectual independence, .but these qualities are hard to find in the countries now under communist rule. In The New Stalinist State Victor Zaslaysky, a defector to the West, speaks sadly of widespread working-class chauvinism in Russia and the conformism of most Russian intellectuals. (2) The continuing predominance, in countries under the rule of groups professing communism, of attitudes which the “existence determines consciousness” theory holds to be outcomes of capitalism, calls the theory into question and stimulates.the search for an alternative.
Second, although enquiry can establish a connection between the existence of a society and its consciousness, it can establish no more than that. When the existence of any society is examined it is found to be already affected by its consciousness, and identification of the one as fundamentally determining and the other as determined is an act of interpretation, governed by the presuppositions of the interpreter. Berthold Brecht has encapsulated the theory that existence determines consciousness in a phrase which W. H. Auden translates as “first grub, then ethics.” (3) The remark assumes a separation which does not in fact exist; nobody eats simply grub, everybody eats a particular sort of grub, and the selection is an ethical matter. The Hudson Bay Eskimo have a taboo against eating caribou and seal on the same day, and in the most primitive society now existing, that of the Australian aborigines, one tribe eats a green caterpillar which those a hundred miles away refuse. (4) The Bushmen of the Kalahari are “almost as omnivorous as bears,” yet they refrain from eating their totem animal unless in extreme need. (5) Among ourselves, people who accept a vegetarian ethic eat different food from those who do not, and the cannibal ethic produces a different diet again. Every known society recognises one category of edible materials which rank as grub and another of those which do not (or which do so only under particular conditions), and to eat unapproved food is not merely unorthodox but unethical. The separation of grub from ethics, existence from consciousness, is a false dichotomy; it is human social life that is in question, and that cannot be separated from consciousness. Consciousness and social existence, political and economic activities, are two interacting halves of a whole, namely volitional social behaviour, and to say that one of them determines the other is to say only that volitional social behaviour determines volitional social behaviour.
1. Marx (K.) A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in Feuer (L.S.) Ed: Marx and Engels; Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, Fontana Library, 1969, p. 84.
2. Review in TLS 13 Jan 84. (We didn’t quite make it).
3. Auden and Kronenbourg Eds: The Faber Book of Aphorisms, London, Faber & Faber, 1964, p. 368.
4. Hilliard (W. M.) The People in Between. The Pitjanjatjara People of Ernabella. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1968, p. 41.
5. Doran (S.S.) Pygmies and Bushmen of the Kalahari, London, Seeley Service & Co.Ltd., 1925, p. 52.
from Ideological Commentary 21, November 1985.