Monday, December 10, 2007

More non-boring Marxism: Marx's third thesis on Feuerbach

Which follows on my article on the first two theses Here.

Third Thesis:

"The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.
The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionising practice."

Marx is getting at a criticism of materialist thought and the attitude of Enlightenment philosophers to other people here. Thinkers have passively acknowledged that people's circumstances in society and their upbringing influence how they develop as people, but who exactly is doing the judging here? By that I mean that it looks like a group of people are surveying society detached from it and judging that people here and there are influenced by their environment but not training their eyes on themselves and how they may have been influenced. On the other hand, the assumption is that the people they're looking at are totally immersed in their environment and don't have any awareness of how it's shaping them, so that there are two groups of people: the thinkers who survey society, and the people who belong to society, and of the two the thinkers think that they're superior because they're supposedly not immersed in their environment. And unconsciously shaped by it. Marx is pointing to the fusion of awareness of issues and engagement with the outside world as the way to truly change society, by the action of people in general and not that of an enlightened elite. The elite that's supposedly enlightened is also determined by their environment, just as people who the elite think are immersed in their environment of course have self consciousness of it.

By "coincidence" in the next paragraph Marx means human activity and changing circumstances coinciding. Where changing circumstances and human activity intersect can only be mass action by a broad section of people that revolutionizes the system if it is to be genuine. Circumstances can change from one person or a couple people moving or raising their kids in a different way, but that's fundamentally a way for the few to improve their lives and not for people as a whole. At its worst it reinforces the idea that only an enlightened few can really rise beyond their environment and alter their destinies and the destinies of their families. On the other hand, the often heard idea that circumstances will just change some day and people will be different both makes people too passive and also devalues the importance of people initiating change themselves. If things will change because some circumstance is going to be changing, then what's the use of people as a whole, or at least a broad section of people, trying to change things? They're supposed to be unconscious of their situation anyways. Marx is getting at the idea that mass change that's productive can only happen by conscious action on the part of people themselves, which can mean things like a million people all coming to the conclusion that the Bush administration is corrupt on their own and then thinking about doing something about it like holding signs or becoming otherwise politically engaged. He's also getting at the point that for the people who try to change things on the micro scale because they feel they're emancipated from society, they'll only be truly free if the rest of society is free as well. Think of a progressive family home schooling their kid in a conservative Christian town in the Bible Belt. Sure, they might be a little more free, and no doubt that freedom matters a lot, but wouldn't it be better if they weren't so isolated in their attempts at freedom?

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