Karl Marx: Existence and Social Consciousness

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  • Topic: Karl Marx, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Marxism
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A paper written for Classical Sociology, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” – Karl Marx

The above notion by Karl Marx is the base of all his succeeding works; it is Marx’s concept of Man and how he critiqued the existing dominant ideology of German thought, and relates his argument to societal change and history – specifically the relations of production. In order to explain what Marx meant by the proposed notion, I will have to explain Marx’s concept of Man, and how an activity (labour) was a primordial means for Man to gain self-realization, which laid the grounds that Marx conjured his argument on the materialist conception of history. This paper is divided into three sections: 1) Initial Influences: I will be explaining briefly how two thinkers influenced Marx’s thoughts and papers (mainly Hegel), 2) Marx’s Concept of Human Nature: Marx conceptualized Nature and Man through an activity which acts as a intermediary to fulfil Man’s necessities, 3) Conclusion: how the structure of epochs were made up of different modes of production and in turn creating different social conditions for Man that determined their form of social consciousness.

Initial Influences

In the German Ideology (Marx 1980: 164), the dominant German thought during Marx’s time, was one that “descended from heaven to earth”, was in fact embodying the school of Idealism. Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel were important German idealists, and for their idealism, existence does not precede consciousness, because we can only know about existence if we are conscious about it. Grounded in the philosophical thoughts of Kant and Hegel, the ideology of morality, religion and metaphysics were verisimilitudes and depicted history as a consequence of these ideologies. Marx (1980: 164) explained, “They have neither history nor development”, proving that these ideas were just products of individuals’ thought. Hegel’s philosophical system (in his Phenomenology of Spirit) was mainly pantheistic as he posited an idea of the “world spirit”; thought itself was a universal self-actualizing activity, which was identical to “God”, and he exerts that this universal spirit was existent even before the dawn of Man (Lien-Te 1984: 7). The core of Marx and Engel’s social and political thought is found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, as he formulated a theory of dialectical principles to expound a theory of development and change (Lien-Te 1984: 6-7). This dialectical process’s crux is that an established thesis would cause an antithesis to develop in opposition, which consequently in turn would cause a new synthesis. This synthesis becomes the thesis and the process starts all over.

Within the same dialectical process, Hegel posits that Man emerges from Nature and along with him emerges the world history (Lien-Te 1984: 7-8); further reinforcing the point that Nature existed before Man. Nature (according to Hegel), is restrictive and Man has to modify and impose an artificial form upon it in order to realize himself. Moreover, because of Man’s needs (for example, subsistence) he inevitably has to modify Nature to satisfy himself. In Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he explains that this activity, labour, is the bridge mediating Man and Nature and it contains an intrinsic value of creation and liberation which allows Man to exceed the restrictions of Nature (Lien-Te 1984: 2-3). Hegel also iterates that Man has to continuously toil and labour in order to realise himself (to be conscious, reflexive), which is the objectification of his mental plan and hence imposing a sense of superiority over nature (Lien-Te 1984: 2). He calls Man, Homo laborans (working Man; in contrast to Homo sapiens: thinking Man (Pinnock 2002: 57)), which is linked to his theory of alienation (which Marx adopts as well); for purposes of...
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