Materialism, in the common parlance, is about our material circumstances and our material interests. It's cast against an idealism that thinks the world is simply ideas, shaped by thought- but isn't that idealism absurd? What would Marx even find of value in it? What does materialism offer that is different from our normal way of viewing the world? Surely it is obvious that the material world is what exists.

To understand how Marx understood his own materialism, I think the most important touchstone is his 'Theses On Feuerbach'. Ludwig Feuerbach was a student of Hegel's who critiqued Hegel's philosophy while attempting to use it to describe the world. Marx was influenced by Feuerbach and wrote the Theses in order to clarify his own ideas. I found this short text difficult to comprehend, so I wanted to post my commentary in order to get some feedback on my understanding. I've included the theses; I found some of the translation online somewhat confusing so I'd look at the original German to modify the translation a bit. I basically just want feedback on whether I have a good understanding of this picture of the world.

  1. The main deficiency of all previous materialisms- Feuerbach's included- is that the subject matter, actuality, making-sense, is only conceived under the form of the object or the intuition; not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Thus it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism- but only abstractly, since idealism naturally does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

    Feuerbach wants sensuous objects that are really different from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. In "The Essence of Christianity'' he regards only the theoretical attitude as genuinely human, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-Jewish manifestation. He therefore doesn't understand the significance of “revolutionary”, of practical-critical activity.

Actuality has special meaning in Hegel's thought, it is "the content of philosophy proper". In the Science of Logic, Hegel refers to it as “an essence that is at one with its appearance”; actuality concerns the question of the correspondence between thoughts and things. To make sense of something in the world we need to have a concept associated with it, it must be sensed as something.

Feuerbach views religion as a general theory of the world; having left behind Judiasm, it's current stop is Chrisitianity, and it aims at discovery of essential truth. Marx finds this, and every other previous attempt to reinstate the primacy of the experience of the senses over ideas, has left the world static, but Marx wants to ask how the world can be changed.

Idealism has already answered this question, saying something like 'the world's spirit has a dialectical movement driven by abstract negation' in the sense that something being wrong will require a fix. We need to descend to ground level human activity to understand how this happens in the real world. From the idealists we learn that conceptual norms govern human activity, we are to understand objectivity as a form of intersubjectivity rather than as emanating from a non-human source.

  1. The question of whether objectivity can be attributed to human thinking is not a theoretical question, but a practical one. In practice, man needs to know the truth, ie. the reality and power of his terrestrial thinking. The dispute over the actuality or non-actuality of thinking, isolated from practice, is a purely scholastic question.

Truth is of this world. The practical concern is how we can change the nature of this reality.

  1. The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society (eg. with Robert Owen).

    The conjunction of changing circumstances and human activity can be grasped and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

Robert Owen advocated for and ran experimental, influential utopian communities the early 1800s. These could be seen as utopian socialist experiments to run a community by cooperative labor or a way to get poor people to work in the rural place you owned.

  1. Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-alienation, a doubling of the world into a religious, imagined, world and a secular world. His work consists in dissolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after accomplishing this task, the main thing still remains to be done. The fact, viz. that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and fixes itself as an independent kingdom in the clouds, can only be explained by the inner strife and self-contradiction of this secular basis. This itself must first be understood in its contradiction and then revolutionized in practice by eliminating the contradiction. So, eg., once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.

Religion is a projection from the world by humans, ‘alienating’ in that it is a self-imposed restriction on human activity. Humans only do this when they are VERY distressed.

  1. Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, appeals to intuition by the senses; but he does not understand making sense as a practical, human-sensuous activity.

Feuerbach seems to find the sensuous world he lives in eternal. Feuerbach should wake up and literally smell the coffee- understand that it is a social product.

  1. Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in individual individuals.

    In actuality, it is the ensemble of social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence is hence obliged:

    a. To abstract from the historical process and to define the religious sentiment regarded by itself, and to presuppose an abstract — isolated - human individual.

    b. The human essence can therefore only be regarded as "species-being", as an inner ‘dumb’ generality which unites many individuals only in a natural way.

Humans have personhood; they are treated as abstractly equal individuals with some set of rights and obligations. This abstract individual personhood is not actually equal, despite what we claim. This view sees humans from an external viewpoint, classifying them in the same way we would a cat or a fruit fly, but humans have an active role in shaping what it means to be human.

  1. Feuerbach consequently does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual that he analyses belongs in reality to a particular social form.

Feuerbach does not see that the reflected bit of the divine that constitutes our soul is socially defined. Discipline and diligence and frugality are not inherent to the protestant soul, faith in god is not why people don’t murder; these rules exist because we live in a society.

  1. All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

If we examine the historical process of what humans have done we can discover why we all work most of the week in order to pay for things.

  1. The highest point reached by intuitive materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sense making as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.

Marx is the first to explain human practice in this way, identifying class conflict as a driving force that shapes society. Freud, Neitzsche, Foucault, and others also uncover human practice by examining society in this way; discovering things like racism, libidinal forces, a will to power as shaping forces when looking at human processes from a zoomed out view.

Contemporary views on Hegel’s project often instate this new materialism in a manner that would be unfamiliar to readers of Marx’s era, but appears harmonious.

  1. The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity.

Marx's investigation will lead him to considering the commodity as the correct starting point for his analysis. The commodity approximates an abstract social product and as such allows for a reasonably comprehensive examination of the social forces at work. He will examine the value of a commodity, which appears in monetary form, and uncover the social relations that constitute it.

  1. Philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.

We have reached the point of theoretical breakdown. Any interpretation of the world is embedded in the social structures that constitute said world and can do no more than simply reveal what must be changed.

1 Answer 1


Welcome, middle-class-boss. Materialism and materialist are slippery terms as also are idealism and idealist. John Plamenatz has some useful remarks about Marx's 'materialism'. They are longish but illuminating. Their main point is to argue that Marx was not in any significant sense an ontological materialist:

The word materialist has been used in several different senses, and it is not always clear in what sense writers about Marx use it when they apply it to him, or in what sense Marx himself uses it. I doubt whether it is possible to elicit from his writings any coherent version of materialism. This does not mean that we can ascribe no definite opinions to him. We can say, for example, that he was not the kind of materialist who holds that mental activities can be reduced to bodily movements and to motions in the brain, or can be treated as mere effects of them. There is virtually nothing in his writings to suggest that he held this view, and a great deal to suggest that he did not. He always speaks of man (sic) as a self-conscious, ratiional, active being who can make choices and can initiate change deliberately. He speaks of man in ways that suggest that he rejected, not only the Hegelian conception of reality as the self-projection or self-revelation of Spirit, but also the Cartesian separation of mind from matter, whch implies that everything is made up of elements that are either purely mental or purely physical. But Cartesian dualism is as much rejected by Hegel as by Marx. (J.P. Plamenatz, Karl Marx's Philosophy of Man', Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975: 17.)

Left to myself I should say that when Marx stresses the 'material' element in human history it is a new materialism that is involved, and none of the ontological materialisms (with associated epistemologies) that Plamenatz (rightly in my view) denies that he held. The point is well expressed by Frederic Bender:

What then is this 'new materialism', which is not a materialist ontology, sought by Marx (and Engels)? In The German Ideology Marx and Engels concentrate on social-historical-political questions such as "What are the fundamental structures of society?" and "How do these influence historical change and, particularly, the formation of ideologies?" rather than on ontological or epistemological ones. They argue that the most fundamental basis of human existence (history) is that certain 'material' human needs give rise to social production, such that social life in general depends in the last analysis on the class dynamics generated in the material process of production necessary to meet these needs. They then proceed to analyse history and social structures on the basis of such class-relations in such a way as to provide the proletariat with an intellectual framework adequate to carry out analyses of its social-political situation and guide it in its struggle against the bourgeoisie. This is the practical payoff of social theory (historical materialism) which no ontological materialism could provide since ... ontological materialism inherently lacks concepts of such socio-historical mediation, i.e., concepts of class structure and social relations. (Frederic L. Bender, 'Marx, Materialism and the Limits of Philosophy', Studies in Soviet Thought , Feb., 1983, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Feb., 1983), pp. 79-100: 87-8.)

I have used extended quotations because Plamenatz and Bender express the real nature of Marx's 'materialism' accurately in my view and because I cannot improve on their presentations.

  • 'also the Cartesian separation of mind from matter, whch implies that everything is made up of elements that are either purely mental or purely physical' But Descartes was non materialist since he did not see the mental as purely a behavior of matter--Marx was mainly concerned with historical materialism (explaining culture in terms of modes of production) rather than ontological materialism, but is there evidence he rejected ontological materialism? He was complimentary to "french materialists" in the last part of marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/holy-family/ch06_3_d.htm
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 5, 2021 at 18:44
  • @Hypnosifl. Thanks for comment. My first impression is that Marx's general position is that he was not a materialist in the senses of materialist that Plamenatz identifies. But I will look further into Die heilige Familie. I appreciate the attention you have paid to my answer. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 6, 2021 at 9:51

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