The German Ideology Is the High Point of Karl Marx’s Philosophical Thought

The German Ideology marked an essential turning point in Marx and Engels’s intellectual development. A major achievement in the tradition of idealist philosophy, it allowed them to get beyond philosophical systems and engage with the world to transform it.

Statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels at the Marx-Engels-Forum park in Berlin, Germany. (Márcio Cabral de Moura / Flickr)

What is The German Ideology? It’s a book by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Well, kind of – it was neither finished nor published in their lifetimes, and many scholars now doubt that the texts published under that name were ever intended to form part of a single coherent “book.”

What is The German Ideology? It is Marx and Engels’s most important specifically philosophical work – but it is also defiantly anti-philosophical: its purpose being, Marx once claimed, to purge him and his coauthor of their “erstwhile philosophical consciences.”

What is The German Ideology? Perhaps a better question would be: What is “the German Ideology” that the title, The German Ideology, describes? In short: the “German Ideology” is Hegelian philosophy.

When Marx and Engels were young men, G.W.F. Hegel, who from 1818 until his death in 1831 had been professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin, was by far the dominant intellectual figure of the day. Hegel’s work represents the high point of the “German idealist” philosophy which developed in the wake of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

Kant’s work sought to preserve the rationalist metaphysics of philosophers like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the wake of the destructive skeptical attack on pretty much all uses of reason staged by the empiricist philosopher David Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739). Kant did this by declaring a “revolution” of metaphysics in which philosophers were able to make valid metaphysical claims by indexing them to the subjective structures of human consciousness, as opposed to how things might be “objectively” in the world beyond the thinking subject. His work was hugely influential but limited by the distinction he insisted upon between “appearances” — which we can have knowledge of — and “things in themselves” — which we can’t. The period in philosophy after Kant was hugely vibrant as his successors attempted to find some way to overcome this distinction.

This vibrant period is usually thought to have culminated with Hegel — with the heroic age of idealist philosophy pretty much concluding in 1807 with the publication of Hegel’s first landmark work, the Phenomenology of Spirit. Essentially, Hegel’s thought is a form of “absolute idealism” in which, over the course of a process of historical development, what is experienced by the mind comes to be identified absolutely with what actually exists in the world. In his central work of political philosophy, the Philosophy of Right (1820), Hegel outlined an account of the state grounded in his “reconstructive” method, in which the political system that we have right now is analyzed retrospectively, as having come to be as the result of a process of rational development. In this way, we come to realize how it might be justified — or at least, how the system might justify itself, internally.

Young Hegelians

In the wake of his death, Hegel’s followers were split between two camps: the “Old” or “Right” Hegelians, who believed history to have culminated both in Hegel’s thought and in the institutions of the Prussian state that employed him, and the “Young” or “Left” Hegelians, who attempted to use Hegelian resources to develop a radical critique of existing conditions — that reconstructive method, after all, might throw up certain internal contradictions as well as justifications. It was through their exposure to the Young Hegelians, in particular a thinker named Ludwig Feuerbach, that Marx and Engels both came to something like philosophical maturity. Feuerbach was a “humanist” philosopher who sought to emphasize, against Hegel, the material, sensuous, embodied dimensions of our life. For him, reason was a human thing — with man essentially a free, “universal” being, the measure of all reality. But we had forgotten that — in large part, because we have alienated the best part of ourselves, by lending them to our greatest creation: God.

Feuerbach was the younger Marx’s hero — the way out of Hegel’s much more abstract, much more conservative idealism. But full maturity would only be reached with the writing of The German Ideology. In large part, the point of Marx and Engels’s studies for The German Ideology was to put socialism on a genuinely scientific (as opposed to philosophical, idealist) footing — by finding a way to abandon their own residual Feuerbachian pretensions. This is the main intellectual context in which their turn towards “historical materialism” must be understood: The German Ideology is an attempt to regard the human animal as a creature that has emerged in and with — not outside of and above — history.

The other major figure Marx and Engels were grappling with while writing The German Ideology was a guy Engels knew called Max Stirner. “Max Stirner” was the pen name of Johann Kaspar Schmidt, a Berlin teacher who worked in a girls’ school. Stirner, whose attempt at an academic career had ended in failure after he flunked the oral component of his PhD examination, had attended meetings of the Young Hegelians in Berlin and had been particularly close to Engels. Today, the only visual representations of Stirner we have are caricatures that Engels drew decades later at the request of Stirner’s biographer, John Henry Mackay.

A quiet, withdrawn man who seems to have had no genuinely close friends — even his wife later claimed to have never particularly liked him — in 1844 Stirner published a book entitled The Ego and Its Own, which was itself intended, at least in part, as a sweeping critique of Feuerbach. In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner argued that basically everything we think exists or everything we are subject to — religion, morality, the state, our status as members of something called “the human species,” whatever — is the product of a mere “spook,” a “wheel in the head”: something essentially alien to us, that we only think is meaningful to the extent that the thought of it holds us captive. In reality, the only thing that exists is me, myself — and whatever happens to exercise my interest in the present (that is, my “property” — the only coherent meaning that “property” can be even said to have at all). Beyond this, there is nothing. (“I have set my cause,” Stirner declares in the opening lines of the book, “on nothing.”) Nothing, therefore, has any “real” value: we should all have the strength to act as consistent egoists — which is to say as nihilists.

Such a work, of course, might prima facie sound so wildly opposed to Marx and Engels’s communist views that they would really be perfectly justified in never bothering to refute it. But in fact, Marx and Engels found Stirner fascinating. Engels, in particular, was highly enthused by Stirner’s book when he first read it — in part because Stirner’s criticisms of the Young Hegelian tradition were in a way so similar to the ones he was at that point in the process of developing in association with Marx. Indeed, in a letter to Marx dated November 19, 1844, Engels even wrote that Stirner’s egoism “is taken to such a pitch, it is so absurd and at the same time so self-aware, that it cannot maintain itself even for an instant in its one-sidedness, but must immediately change into Communism.”

Marx’s initial reply to this letter has been lost, but other letters suggest that he was far less taken with the work, indeed that he rather poured cold water on Engels’s gushing reception of it — but even Marx was influenced enough by it to assist with the production of over 300 pages of very detailed close reading and critique. Again, there is a bit of a caveat here, because the “Stirner manuscript” is, aside from being very detailed, also singularly uncharitable to its opponent: Marx is often a very funny writer, but here the insults typically have a chortling, schoolboy tone — and also don’t really make that much sense unless you know both your Young Hegelians and your Don Quixote. . . . There is a lot in the Stirner chapter about Don Quixote.

In essence though, the Stirner section is important because it helps clarify what Marx and Engels take to be the relation between individual and class interest, and how this means that, with a critical mass of the population having been proletarianized by capitalism, the abolition of class society will inevitably result. In short: if people really are as bourgeois as society takes them to be — self-interested individuals — then eventually it will be in the egoistic interest of enough individuals to band together to overthrow the system that works against their interests. Although with this, of course, the basis of egoistic “individualism,” as we presently know it, will be abolished. The advantage of this account is that it allows us to understand the individual as a historical category while also showing that communism can be brought about, as it were, extramorally, entirely in line with the disenchanted behavioral assumptions of capitalist economists: only through the actions of selfish people, who never need to do anything other than act selfishly.

Change It

Though Marx and Engels would ultimately leave The German Ideology both unpublished and incomplete, the work nevertheless played a central role in their intellectual development. Marx later wrote of using the work he did toward The German Ideology to, in a way, purge himself of the strictures of the academic philosophy of his day. In my view, he remained a philosopher even after it — or at any rate, he continued to think philosophically, to use philosophical resources to analyze and criticise the world. But he was no longer — and this is crucial — engaged in anything like the pursuit of philosophy for its own sake. Rather, what we see after The German Ideology is what Marx himself said he got out of working on it: a Marx liberated from his “erstwhile philosophical conscience” and thus able to reflect on the world in much more varied, active, transformative ways — with no pedantic academic superego constantly looking over his shoulder; no revered philosophical mentors to feel like he needed to be “true” to. The results of this were first seen in The Communist Manifesto (1848), before condensing into the project that would consume Marx’s activities for almost the whole of the rest of his life — his “Economics,” the work which would later become Capital (Volume 1, published 1867).

The German Ideology was thus essentially a project that Marx and Engels undertook at a moment of transition: a sort of evolutionary bottleneck into which they threw all the philosophy, radical or otherwise, that they had been raised on — with something quite different being thrown out, like the colored beams of light that emerge from a prism at the other end.

But The German Ideology is also the culmination of something. In my view, it represents the true culmination — and should really be seen, I think, as the overcoming — of the German idealist tradition in philosophy.

Marx and Engels’s materialist philosophy of history pushes past Hegel and back to Hume, because it helps us understand how this basically irrational thing — “human nature,” the sum of our crudest appetitive drives — has produced society as we know it today and may yet one day manage to yield something better. They take their cues, as they tell us, from human beings as they are — “real” and “active” — and show us how these selfish, irrational, needing, and desiring things may one day bring about a world they are able to exercise “conscious mastery” over and be free in relation toward — preserving what remains of a very distinctively German idealist longing for “autonomy.” In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels overcome Hegel, by placing Spirit firmly on its stomach.

Here, at any rate, is my reading of the text. In my view, what The German Ideology allows us to do is to dissolve a certain historical tendency in the history of philosophy, toward the construction of the sorts of philosophical “systems” that philosophers working in the German tradition Marx and Engels emerged from were typically given to try to build. The idealist tradition constructs elaborate solutions to internal problems thrown up by reflection on reason — and ends up crowning reason as sovereign. Marx and Engels, by contrast, consider philosophical problems, such as they are, as always already reflections of material conflicts in the world. Their solution must thus be sought not in abstract system-building, but in “real-world” practice: thought must strive not simply to understand the world but — as Marx would put this point in his famous eleventh “Thesis on Feuerbach” (written 1845) — to change it.