Review: ‘The Conception of Nature in Marx’ by Alfred Schmidt

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‘The Conception of Nature in Marx’ is a very interesting book written by Alfred Schmidt (1931-2012), and first published in 1962. Indeed, ‘The Conception of Nature in Marx’ was the thesis with which Alfred Schmidt gained his doctorate from Goethe University, Frankfurt. As a student of both Adorno and Horkheimer, and given his career at the Frankfurt University, it may be surmised that his philosophical premise was heavily influence – if not defined – by the Frankfurt School. It is clear from the start, that although an admirer of Marx (whilst writing as he is in capitalist ‘West Germany’), Schmidt is no friend of the Soviet Union. This is despite the fact that on occasion, Lenin is quoted in a positive light, particularly where Schmidt adjudges him not to have deviated too far from the literal Marx. The same cannot be said about the Soviet State, which Schmidt continuously dismisses with a casual ease, for falling into what he assumes is some sort of idealistic revelry (with its reliance upon ideological statements designed for mass consumption). This mistaken position stems from Schmidt interpreting the work of Engels (particularly relating to his ‘Dialectics of Nature’) as ‘deviating from Marx, rather than developing or completing the Marxian philosophical narrative. Schmidt is of the opinion that as the Soviet Union (or so he claims), limits the interpretation of historical materialism to statements made by Engels (as opposed to Marx), this preference indicates a diversion away from true or proper Marxism.

Through this work, Schmidt analyses materialism, nature and science within Marx, and assesses how all three categories inter-relate with one another, and operate through (and in conjunction) with humanity. Schmidt clearly defines the attitude of Marx through the selection of key extracts from major works (both early and late), but tends to subscribe to the Trotskyite viewpoint (in spirit at least), that virtually everything that comes after Marx is assumed to be ‘mistaken’ or ‘incorrect’. In this regard, Schmidt does not allow for the theory of Scientific Socialism to be a product of the complete thinking of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, nor does he allow for this theory to be subject to evolutionary development – which is ironic considering that Schmidt dedicates a portion of the book to examining how Marx viewed (and interpreted) the pivotal work of Charles Darwin. Where Lenin is correct, is exactly where Lenin quotes Marx word for word, but where Lenin (and therefore the Soviet State) is wrong, is where Lenin dialectically ‘develops’ the thinking of Marx and Engels beyond its original presentation. This approach presents a paradox. On the one hand, Schmidt is astute, exact and careful in his analysis of Marx, whilst on the other, he strives to dialectically prove (implicitly) that the Soviet Union (and any movement thus inspired), is wrong because it represents a deviation away from the literal Marx. Schmidt writes so well that the reader is seduced into complicity with this flawed narrative, assuming (along with Schmidt) that Marx (even when properly understood), should be viewed from a state of splendid isolation. Again, the spectre of Trotsky raises its head.

This denial of the Soviet evolutionary, dialectical development of Marx, when placed next to the lack of acceptance that what Engels had to say was probably already known to Marx (and not criticised by him), is simultaneously the foundational premise of his thesis, and its greatest error. Schmidt over-comes this problem by a priori limiting his entire premise to Marx being a philosopher with universal import, to a thinker that must only be appreciated when cut-off from the very universe he is assumed to a) represent, and b) radically transform. However, once Schmidt’s containment policy is accepted by the reader, what he has to say about Marx is generally very interesting (although, in places definitely open to debate). This is significant as Schmidt appears to be participating in the building of an alternative Marxist dialectic of interpretation, which sees the 1917 October Revolution (in Russia) as being an error and of no historical importance for the development of Marxian thought. This attitude (evident throughout) reduces the intellectual output of Karl Marx to that of a fetish interest. Everyone declared a Trotskyite, or dialectically deficient by the Soviet ideologues, are presented by Schmidt as the ‘saviours’ of Marx, despite the fact that these people generally achieved very little in the realms of world history. When this reality is taken into account, Schmidt’s work can be used to re-examine Marx within a type of history cut-off from subsequent events, with a view of developing a greater insight into what Marx might have meant.

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