Many people do not adequately understand the fundamental concepts of ‘history’, ‘necessity’ or ‘materialism’, and only possess a vague working knowledge. History is thought to be the antics only of the dominant ‘ruling classes’ as taught in school history books, necessity is something ‘required’ when all is said and done, and materialism takes on the (religious) ‘moral’ implication of someone desiring to selfishly possess material objects. Obviously, the writings of Marx cannot be correctly (or even ‘adequately’) interpreted through this rubric of analysis. The Mainland Chinese academic Yang Geng states:
‘Fundamentally, history is just the development of practical activity of man in time. So, Marx argues: “As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with idealists.” On the premise of this, historical materialism establishes the scientific idea of historical necessity.’
Yang Geng: In Defense of Marx – a New Interpretation of Marxist Philosophy, 3rd Ed. (English) – Trans. By Cheng Zhou & Li Ling, 3rd English Ed. Edited by Walterio Barra Cabello, CANUT, (2010), Page 184
The above quote from Marx appears in his 1845 book entitled ‘The German Ideology’, Part I: Feuerbach – Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook – A. Idealism and Materialism, [4. The Essence of the Materialist Conception of History. Social Being and Social Consciousness]. As the complete work of Marx is surveyed, it can be observed that his understanding of historical necessity ‘matures’ into that of historical materialism, with all doubts, contradictions and inadequacies finally being removed or solved, etc. The 1845 book by Marx and Engels entitled ‘The Holy Family – Critique of Critical Criticism’, is a humorous demonstration of historical materialism, that expertly dissects the absurdities of the ‘idealist’ and ‘inverted’ view of reality. From start to finish, historical idealism is ruthlessly exposed and encountered using incisive wit penetrating intellect. Indeed, The German Ideology written in the same year (1845), is a much longer and involved book with multiple targets, and may be considered the non-humorous version of ‘The Holy Family’.
What is history? Yang Geng expertly solves this problem through three exact and succinct declarations. History is defined as involving:
2) Practical activity.
3) Time elapsing.
Marx offers and rejects two other definitions of observing or analysing history:
a) Empiricism – which simply ‘collects’ (disconnected) individual snippets of sensory data.
b) Idealism – which carries-out ‘imagined’ explorations of inner terrains that ‘do not exist’.
Marx uses the example of ‘empiricism’ (nominalism) to reject the other extant (but incomplete) versions of materialism that are often used within bourgeois-supporting academia. As bourgeois academia must appear to be ‘cutting-edge’ whilst never allowing the development of academic research into areas that ‘question’ or ‘criticise’ predatory capitalism or the right of the bourgeoisie to dominate society, the data collected is often ‘nominal’ in that it is collected in such a manner so that a ‘preferred’ (or conveniently ‘limited’) picture of reality is constructed that supports and advances the dominance of the status quo. This type of ‘limited’ materialism contains the moral vigour of being premised upon ‘empiricist’ observation, whilst being held firmly within the required boundaries so as to preserve the status quo. These other versions of partial (or incomplete) materialist observation are numerous, with all claiming to reject idealism. What changes the definition of these differing versions of materialism is the angle of view adopted by each founding theorist, with regard to the material data being observed. Marx rejects this bourgeois-derived ‘partiality’ and observes material reality using one-hundred percent receptivity – through an angle of three-hundred and sixty-degree awareness!
Marx states that man communicates with man in a material environment that comprises also the other bodies of humanity. The human brain (from which the ‘mind’ emerges), is itself part of the physical universe, as it evolved within the material environment – overtime. Furthermore, the total history of humanity is generated solely through human activity observed in the environment – over-time. Physical human labour changes the natural environment within which humanity evolved over millions of years, and these changes can be observed, recorded and measured. As modern humans evolved, their unique cognitive and physical abilities separated humanity from their animalistic ancestors (and the animal kingdom in general), and allowed them to ‘dominate’ nature and everything in it. Not only has the physical shape and functionality of the human-species changed over-time (recorded in the fossil and DNA records), but the practical achievements of humanity are observable through archaeology and architecture, etc. Humanity is the sum-total of its cognitive and physical activity according to Marx.
Historical idealists assume that an unseen theistic entity exists ‘somewhere’ in a universe that he created, and that this theistic entity occasionally ‘interferes’ with the destiny of humanity, changing development one-way and then another, as the whim takes his fancy (this is history defined as being generated from ‘god to man’). For the historical idealist, the history of humanity is shaped and directed by a god-concept that cannot be seen, grasped or measured. This lack of physical evidence is taken by the idealists as a justification for the generation and maintenance of the agency of blind-faith. As this god is merely ‘imagined’ in the mind and then ‘projected’ out into the universe, Marx describes this process as an ‘inversion’ of reality. The idealist interprets reality the ‘wrong way around’. Indeed, Marx states that the bourgeoisie as a class relies upon this fundamental ‘inversion’ of reality to be persuasive throughout society, so as to stop a true consciousness developing amongst the masses, and a Revolution ensuing. This ‘inversion’ is a ‘false consciousness’ looking at reality. Where materialism is used by the bourgeoisie, (such as in its military science), it is strictly guarded to maintain dominance, or hopelessly incomplete so as to render it unable to initiate an inner or outer Revolution.
Marx referred to his theory of materialism as being ‘practical materialism’, and ‘historical necessity’. As Marx acknowledges the presence and validity of the conscious mind, his materialism could be described as ‘soft’. However, this is not to suggest that Marx thinks the mind exists parallel or apart from matter. For Marx, human thought, sensation and the environment operate in conjunction with one another, whereby the sensation of a physical object (and the manifestation of its thought-equivalent in the mind) is a simultaneous phenomenon. Human thought cannot exist without the agency of sensation interfacing between the human brain and the physical environment. Human consciousness must be filled-up with worldly impressions to operated properly, and to give the (false) impression that it can operate independently ‘outside’ of the physical world from within which it evolved (this ‘false impression’ is the root of all religious misunderstanding). This happens due to the capacity of the human mind to ‘remember’ past events, remain ‘aware’ of present event, and ‘speculate’ about future events. All these abilities stem from ‘sensing’ and meaningfully ‘interacting’ with the physical environment since birth. Yes, the human mind (and body) can function in other (alien) environments (such as different planets, or outer space), with the correct safety equipment in-place, but the agency of ‘consciousness’ cannot naturally operate outside of the human brain (and body-environment) that produces it. At least not without an artificial brain, sensory array and environment, etc (something that ‘Futuristic’ science may be able to achieve). These facts demonstrate that human consciousness is not ‘imported’ into the brain and body from an unknown (possibly ‘divine’) outer source, and the material history of humanity remains the sum-total of its own activity and labour in the physical world, observed over-time.