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The Reformed Scholars Consortium

Historical Materialism: Marx and Engels

Historical Materialism: Marx and Engels1
Summary/Response Paper
Tim Black


In our text’s selection from Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, an argument is put forth to the effect that the Hegelian/Idealist view of history is wrong due to the fact that it attempts a synthesis of “Nature” and “Freedom,” but fails to accomplish that synthesis. Further, the selection argues that only an understanding of the foundational nature of dialectical materialism can accomplish the desired synthesis of “Nature” and “Freedom.” As such, while preaching that we must base our understanding of history on empirical study rather than philosophical speculation, and that ideas only change when their underlying events (aka “material” or social forces) themselves accomplish the basic change via a social revolution, the selection’s own method is decidedly not empirical but rather unambiguously a species of modern speculative and dogmatic philosophy, and its stance toward the change of ideas appears more to be one of attempting to create ideological revolution through argument rather than through allowing the process of dialectical materialism to run its course and thereby create a revolution in the material interactions of men.

Karl Marx

The Modern Nature-Freedom Dualism: Let’s explain this strange analysis a bit.

In case this analysis of the article appears to be too much “Wie Tim Black fälschlich gedacht” rather than “Wie es eigentlich gewesen,” it would be wise for me to explain the role that the categories of “Nature” and “Freedom” play in the selection. As Marx (or Engles? perhaps both?) explains his own view of the reality that lies at the heart of history, and contrasts that with the Hegelian/Idealist view (which is consistently termed the “German” view,) he sets up the same general modern metaphysical structure which is common to Hegel, Marx, and even Kant and Heidegger. That structure is one where the things of “Nature” are the entities associated with the physical, scientifically observable and describable, lawful, orderly, and conceptually objectifiable world, and the things of “Freedom” are the entities associated with the non-physical, mental or spiritual, non-scientifically observable and describable, free, not ordered, and not objectifiable. While the different modern philosophers mentioned here do not agree on all points of this general structure, the structure remains an accurate summary of a prominent commonality between these modern philosophers. Kant and Heidegger separate the two realms of Freedom and Nature in such an absolute mutually-exclusive way that no synthesis of the two realms appears possible. Hegel and Marx attempt to explain a synthesis of the two realms while admitting the real exclusion which persists between the two realms. In this selection, Marx argues that Hegel’s synthesis fails and must be replaced with a supposedly working synthesis.

Argumentative Method: Hegel Is Insufficient because Marx Is Sufficient

In our reading, Marx’s primary means of demonstrating the failure of Hegel’s system is to demonstrate the sufficiency of his own system. This means appears allowable because the two systems contradict each other regarding which of the two realms is more prior or original relative to the other realm, and so if one system is proved right, the other must be wrong.3 To get into the details a bit more, note that Marx states that Hegel’s view places the “spirit” or “consciousness” or “thought” as the more original reality, from which (at least teleologically speaking) all events of human history derive their own reality, and then note also that Marx attempts to argue that really it is the other way around—events of human history are the basic reality from which consciousness and “spirit” arise. This can be restated in terms of the Nature-Freedom dualism as follows: Marx agrees with Hegel that the “spirit” or “consciousness” is the entity that is perfectly representative of “Freedom,” and that some kind of “events” or “material realities” are perfectly representative of the realm of “Nature.” However, Marx has a bone to pick with Hegel over which realm and its representative(s) is the more basic or original to human history. Hegel says that Freedom (consciousness) is original and basic, Marx says that Nature (material interaction) is original and basic. Marx attempts to explain away the apparent priority of the realm of consciousness (or ideology, philosophy, the movement of ideas in history,) by drawing a supposedly justifiable line of priority starting from human life and material interaction (i.e., Nature) and leading to the generation, flow and clash of ideas in history (i.e., Freedom). He states that it is not the clash of ideas in their dialectical progress that is the core reality of history, but rather it is the clash of human social interaction in its material aspect that is the core reality of history, and this material dialectic is the deeper explanation behind the epiphenomenon of the realm of ideas (i.e., the realm of Freedom.) Because Marx has successfully demonstrated the priority of Nature relative to the secondary existence of Freedom through this explanation which draws a line of dependent connection from the former to the latter, so the argument goes, Hegel’s false construction need no longer be believed but only rejected as the sham that it is. From this point on, historians ought to begin to recognize the central role in history played by the dialectic of the material interaction within human society.

A Paradoxical Synthesis: Practicing What He Preaches?

However, Marx is not only intent on debunking and replacing Hegel’s view of history. He has a grander scheme. He is very interested in solving the problem which Hegel’s attempt at synthesis could not solve. Marx too is attempting a synthesis of the same dualistic metaphysical construct with which Hegel struggled. For both Marx and Hegel, a synthesis of Nature and Freedom will be achieved only through the taming of the violent conflict and contradiction between the two realms which occurs due to their inherent mutual exclusion. For Hegel, the future and even final Idea or Spirit contradicts the events of history and the former ideas/spirits which were less harmoniously integrated with one another. Yet in the final and absolute contradiction supposedly the contradiction itself is removed, so that the Idea/Spirit/Consciousness comprehends itself perfectly and comprehends all events/material entities, such that a true synthesis of the two realms has occurred. Marx attempts to posit a similar final synthetic triumph when he says (from pp. 153-154, and note the section I italicized):

Moreover, it is quite immaterial what consciousness starts to do on its own: out of all such muck we get only the one inference that these three moments, the forces of production, the state of society, and consciousness, can and must come into contradiction with one another, because the division of labour implies the possibility, nay the fact that intellectual and material activity—enjoyment and labour, production and consumption—devolve on different individuals, and that the only possibility of their not coming into contradiction lies in the negation in its turn of the division of labour.

For Marx, it appears that he thinks that the clash of human social interaction materially considered will eventually achieve its own destruction such that a perfect harmony of the realms of Nature and Freedom with each other will arise. Specifically, once the division of labor is destroyed and the communist society comes about on its own, the peasant working in the field will be the thinker, or as Marx puts it, he will one day “hunt in the morning...and criticize after dinner....” (155) Consciousness and material interaction will be bound up in the same persons, and no clash will be possible between the two realms.

Fred Engels

Well, it is helpful that Marx briefly speaks relatively directly to the issue of what the nature of the synthesis will be. However, this whole attempt at solving the problems of Hegel’s philosophy appears itself to not practice the doctrine that it preaches. This is especially evident at the point where Marx speaks about the future resolution of what he considers to be the conflict which is occurring and empirically verifiable in the present. One wonders how he would escape his own criticisms of Hegel’s philosophy to the effect that it was idle speculation not grounded in empirical study, when the perfection of the synthesis which Marx claims to have explained could not itself be empirically verified until its arrival at some unknown future date. But not only is Marx’s explanation of the synthesis seemingly unjustifiable. His attempt at reaching a synthesis appears to betray a committment to something more than a simple examination of the empirical realities of human material interaction. If Hegel’s construction is so speculative, how would Marx deal with the clear likeness which his own dualism bears to the dualism of Hegel, the idealists, and Kant? Were Hegel, the idealists, and Kant perhaps looking at human material interaction in a partially correct manner, giving them insight concerning the existence of the realms of Nature and Freedom, or is it really more that Marx is depending on and committed to a pre-existent tradition of thought, and is not depending so much on his empirical observations of the real world? The tradition of thought appears to have swept Marx along with it, despite his arguments that such a thing cannot happen.

Further, it could be argued that Marx’s method of effecting change in his surroundings, at least insofar as is apparent from our reading, is more that of the academic attempting to persuade his audience than that of a man simply allowing the flow of dialectical materialism to run its course. Due to the press of time, I will leave any further elucidation of that point for another day.


We have attempted to follow not the outline of the selected reading, but rather the key features of its argument. Marx argues strongly against the German or Hegelian view of history, largely by presenting his (Marx’s) own view as the truly sufficient explanation. Further, he inducts into his own system the problem assumed by Hegel, which in turn gives his own system problems similar to those inherent in Hegel’s system. The radical nature of this bankruptcy could be traced in much more detail and on many more fronts than those expressed herein. However, for the Christian who is interested in coming to a better understanding of the biblical-presented historiography, this selected reading can serve to warn one about some of the errors committed by those before Marx, by Marx himself, and those errors committed by those who follow Marx to a greater or lesser extent.

2Written in response to an unspecified selection taken from Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, (written in 1846, published in its entirety only in 1932), as found in The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present, Ed. Fritz Stern (New York: Random House, 1956), pp. 147-158.

3However, the possibility of both realms being equally ultimate, prior, or original is not given the attention which is deemed appropriate by the God Whose will (plan/counsel) is in perfect accord with and equally original with His nature. Word and deed are equally ultimate in the biblical presentation, be it in reference to God’s existence apart from creation, His epistemological revelation to and in creation, or the construction of that creation itself. There can be a real ordering to the attributes/characteristics/aspects of God, His revelation, and His creation, but in the cases considered here it is not wise to attempt to postulate an ordering of relative originality, relative causal priority, or relative logical priority. (There is room to call one side more primary and the other more secondary in some cases, but to explain this would go far beyond the scope of the current paper. Suffice it to say that such an ordering of primacy is not an ordering of originality, causality, or logical priority in the senses intended here.) This should give us pause before we accept Marx’s assumptions here about the justifiability of his method of argument.

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