George Walford: Materialism

This is from the speech which Friedrich Engles delivered at Marx’s funeral:

He [Marx] discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, religion, art etc. and that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal concepts, the art, and even the religious convictions of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which these things must be explained, instead of vice-versa, as had hitherto been the case.

That is persuasive. It carries an air of robust common-sense: “Now away with all your superstitions.” Unfortunately, facts that appear to be simple have a way of turning out, upon closer examination, to be damnably complicated, and so it is here.

Engels tells us that the state institutions have been evolved upon a foundation formed by production of the material means of subsistence. But wherever that “foundation” is found examination shows the state institutions to be already involved in it. Production of food requires that those devoting their time to this activity should have their remaining material needs supplied by others. It also requires that crops and herds, and their producers, should be protected from predators human and animal. It requires, in short, a dominant power, division of labour and the co-operation of specialised groups, and these do not just happen, they have to be arranged. In every society that depends upon production for its subsistence the state, in however undeveloped a form, is also found. It performs a range of functions, among them those of providing the necessary organisation and using coercive force to keep recalcitrants in line. And with the state are found politics and religion.

We have said the production of food “requires” a dominant power, division of labour, co-operation between specialised groups, and institutions to ensure these. The term is too weak, it retains a suggest ion that production comes into existence first, afterwards stating its requirements. In fact production of the means of subsistence is not found apart from these other features, it does not merely require but rather presupposes them.

It is equally true that these other features are not found apart from dependence upon production. Wherever either production or state institutions appears, examination invariably reveals the presence also of the other They are as inseparable as up and down, yes and no, inside and outside, and the ascription of priority to one or the other is an arbitrary act governed by the assumptions of the ascriber.

When the socialist movement began, with Robert Owen, Fourier and Saint Simon, it came without class associations; the expectation was that the new system would be established because this was the sensible thing to do. The workers, the poor, the oppressed, would certainly benefit, but it was the people in authority who were expected to play the active part. This expectation was not realised and only then, when socialist theory had to be strengthened if it was not to admit defeat, was the working class brought in as the putative driving force of reform and revolution. (A role it has consistently refused to accept).

Marxist materialism was developed as a part of this attempt to rescue socialism. If it could be established that the material world was more fundamental than the conceptual then it could be taken as a corollary that the class most directly associated with the physical work of producing the material necessities played a more fundamental role than the class assumed to be particularly identified with the “ideological superstructure.” Marxist materialism was developed in order to give the workers (identified with the material world) priority over the capitalist class (identified with the “ideological superstructure”).

Examination shows that the material cannot be separated from the conceptual, and there is nothing very difficult or obscure about this perception. The material world cannot be separated from the conceptual because the material world is itself a concept. Direct experience, without the intervention of concepts, is what the mystics try (and fail) to talk about intelligibly. If we do have direct experience of a physical reality “out there,” divorced from our conceptualising, it is an experience we can never communicate or even think about, for to do either is to conceptualise it. The existence of such a reality can never be demonstrated. And, whether direct experience of particular items be possible or not, it is not possible directly to experience a world. The material world is, and can only be, known as a concept.

Engels’ “simple fact” dissolves upon examination. There is no rational ground for regarding social production as more fundamental to state institutions than they are to it. Whenever a productive system or a state is examined the other is found inside or underneath it. Production on one hand, the state, religion, and law on the other are not related as base and superstructure. If we have to speak in metaphors they would be better described as two sides of the one coin.

We can, of course, imagine a different condition of things. We can picture a state of society in which voluntary co-operation supplies all requirements. But to do that is to depart from the “simple fact” of experience and enter the realm of speculation.

from Ideological Commentary 25, January 1987.