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Karl Marx: Prophet of Authenticity, Part I

In his new bestseller, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman argues that Marx, along with Nietzsche and others, contributed to the plasticity of man. Meaning that human nature is contingent, not static, and subject to the desires and will of man himself for its ultimate meaning, manifestation, and final end. In sum, it is the erosion of metaphysics and traditional ontology.

Marx, capitalizing on his predecessors, represents an inward turn in anthropology and the psychology of the self. He serves as a precursor to our present cult of authenticity—the correspondence between what we are (or believe ourselves to be) internally with how we present ourselves externally to act upon the world and those in it, an impulse that, it must be said, lies behind and animates the contemporary critical social justice movement. But as Charles Taylor convincingly argues in his less-read short treatise, The Ethics of Authenticity, we are all inescapably members of this same cult. Our moral vocabulary is enveloped by its liturgy. And as Trueman has also discerned, whether we like it or not, in this sense, we all live in Marx’s world now. It would do us well, then, to try to sketch the confines of our epochal cult and how it is that Marx is our true prophet.

He does not occupy such high office because the kids like socialism again or because capitalism increasingly exhibits the internal contradictions (and vices) he criticized. No, it is rather because Marx was (per Engels himself) first and foremost a philosopher of history, and his theory of history yields a distinct, accompanying anthropology that everywhere pervades our so-called (but not quite) “secular age.” Marx’s doctrine of man is his true legacy; it undergirds and propels our national contentions and social ills even now. In other words, Marxian anthropology is instigating its unavoidable concomitant eschatology. This essay series is  largely a descriptive attempt to flesh that out.  


For all his historic materialism, Marx was more of an idealist than is usually appreciated. He held tightly to the fundamentally Hegelian conviction that self-consciousness changes over time, that the self is historical and dynamic. History is anthropocentric. It does not carry on without man, but rather it acquires all of its significance from him.

In this circular, man-centered system, human nature is defined by its role—its acting—in history, and history is the acting of man within it. The two are mutually dependent. As Erich Fromm put it,

“For Spinoza, Goethe, Hegel, as well as for Marx, man is alive only inasmuch as he is productive, inasmuch as he grasps the world outside of himself in the act of expressing his own specific human powers, and of grasping the world with these powers. Inasmuch as man is not productive, inasmuch as he is receptive and passive, he is nothing, he is dead.”

Human nature is a thing in progress according to, and through, history. For both Hegel and Marx, then, human nature takes on eschatological character; anthropology is eschatology.

And whilst Marx dictated consciousness with external conditions, it is, in the final (dialectical) analysis, the power of the consciousness over said conditions that drives history. Marx’s insistence on the inevitability of history’s progression according to its immutable laws is nevertheless undermined by the central, indispensable role of human consciousness therein. Perhaps Marx never quite turned Hegel upside down, never getting his feet as firmly planted in the earth as he thought.

History, Not Economy

Just as he is misconceived as a materialist rather than (at root) an idealist, Marx is misunderstood when he is cast as an economist. In truth, Marx, like Hegel, was a theorist of history. Understanding the essence of Marxist thought is to understand it as a theory of historical process, and, in turn, history as epistemology. As Mark Poster put it in Foucault, Marxism and History, “Marx elevated history to the status of a condition of knowledge.” Put another way, “Marxism raises history to an epistemological principle.” Even more than epistemology, however, Marx understood history as anthropology and, in turn, as eschatology.

In The German Ideology, Marx makes the laboring man the key to history. The first premise of both knowledge and history, indeed, of “all human existence,” is that “men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history.'” Further, “The first historical act is thus the production of means… the production of material life itself.” This premise contains a supporting, secondary Hegelian assumption. Subjects (laborers) and objects (matter) comprise the social field and interaction between the two produces mutual change. 

Process Eschatology

As Ryszard Legutko recounts in his insightful and chilling book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, the Marxist description of the historical process by which communism would finally emerge took on three primary forms—all of which, at various points and according to convenience, were employed by the Soviet regime and have been invoked by Marxists since. Indeed, no one of the forms excludes the others. All three are present in Marx and refer to the same historical process which culminates in, as Legutko puts it, “the growing self-consciousness of humanity on its road to the fullness of existence.” And any party that frustrated this process was, per se, an enemy of progress, humanity, and the inescapable laws of history—true reality itself.  

In the first version of Marxist history, communism is the final stage of socio-political development. This version draws heavily on Marx’s laws of history, famously Darwinized by Engels’ eulogy. The inherent logic of history, as surely as natural selection, would inevitably lead to the emergence of communism. Even under this first historical formula, the natural progression of history coincides with man’s own progress towards his ultimate stage of existence, his eternal rest.  

The second account of communism’s triumph emphasized more than the first the role of self-conscious human actors, those most aware of their historical role, to usher in the last stage of development for all. The mission of these historical agents was to, by sheer force of will and conviction, lift humanity out of the mire. Again, that Marxism is an incontrovertibly progressive ideology is on display here.

Finally, the third version of the historical transition features as its centerpiece distinctly Marxist anthropological assumptions. The third explanation of the rise of the communist world community is masterfully explained in Leszek Kołakowski’s The Main Currents of Marxism. Kołakowski rightly deems this third account, derived from the humanistic thought associated with Marx’s earlier, more obvious Hegelianism, as key to understanding the entire Marxist tradition, past and present. In Legutko’s words,

“Thus, the quest for communism was not dictated solely by implementing a specific political plan or simply by a desire to win the power struggle for social justice. All of these strategies sprang from a deeper source, which was to bring the human potential to its full flourishing.”

It is most evidently the third, humanistic-anthropological theory that has endured to the present and now undergirds the thought and revolutionary self-consciousness of contemporary Marx-ish activists, giving rise to the language of their central moral assertion and governing ethical value, viz., authenticity. Accordingly, Henry Koren convincingly showed that the best way to accommodate Marx’s thought to the present, to grasp its endurance, is to understand the Marxist account of man’s condition, that is, alienation as inauthenticity. But we must begin with what man is according to Marx before we can discern what ails him.

Marx’s Anthropology

For Marx, man is a self-realizing, self-humanizing being. The process of the evolution of humanity is the story of history. As Erich Fromm discerned in his comparative study of Marx and Freud,

“For Marx, the nature of man was a given potential, a set of conditions, the human raw material, as it were, which as such cannot be changed, just as the size and structure of the human brain has remained the same since the beginning of civilization. Yet man does change in the course of history. He is the product of history, transforming himself during his history. He becomes what he potentially is. History is the process of man’s creating himself by developing—in the process of work—those potentialities which are given him when he is born. ‘The whole of what is called world history,’ says Marx, ‘is mothering but the creation of man by human labor, and the emergence of nature for man; he therefore has the evident and irrefutable proof of his self-creation of his own origins.'”

Man is pure potentiality. History is the actualization of said potentiality. Man is, by his labor, a self-creating being. Marx’s man, therefore, has little need of the God of classical theism. He himself possesses the divine attributes of aseity and sovereignty already. Man, in his providence, makes history, and, therefore, makes himself.

Like Hegel, though for different reasons, Marx’s theory of history—which is determined by perpetual contradictions (i.e., dialectical)—centered on man’s becoming. Man, qua man, then, is a truly historical being. He is not a static reality but a participant in a shared historical progression. To be fully human is to be intricately involved in the becoming of humanity in history. Unlike the Christian God, man is not immutable or eternal (i.e., outside of time). He is not being but in a continuous act of (historical) becoming. Simultaneously perfectible, but unstable and malleable; not metaphysically simple but dynamic.   

For Hegel, the perpetual act of becoming was wrapped up in the phases of universal thought—the development of the universal idea or the progressive self-consciousness of the universal mind—with each epoch of history. Marx put history back on its feet, so to speak, correcting Hegel’s idealism (famously flipping Hegel on his head) by standing man right side up, rooting him back in the material world and historical processes, so that man could gaze clear-eyed into the horizon of his own progress. Marx’s history was material not ideal, but it was nevertheless idealistic in the colloquial sense.

“Marx… was not concerned with the causal relationship between matter and mind but with understanding all phenomena as results of the activity of real human beings,” says Fromm. As Marx himself put it in defiance of Hegel,

“In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from the heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men imagine, conceive, in order to arrive at man in the flesh. We set out from real active men and on the basis of their real life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process.”

History is not driven by man’s participation in some amorphous universal idea, argued Marx. Rather, the great strides of history, the emergence of each formative epoch, have been dictated by the material conditions of life and man’s action upon them. History is not just philosophy, it is the real, lived, material experience of people. Therefore, to understand history is to understand the evolutions of material conditions which, in Marx’s estimation, were determined solely by labor—the interaction between man and external material reality. “The entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the begetting of man through human labor.” Man is a being in the world, “a real objective world” and he is, therefore, “determined by that world.” But he is also a being at the world. That is, he is involved in it. He is dependent on the world but also acts upon the world, a sort of triumphant symbiosis.

The world, as it is, is not conducive to man’s use. He must act upon it. He must humanize it, molding it for habitability, conforming it to his image. And as man humanizes the world, he, through this work, humanizes himself. Nature is totally malleable, ready to be changed according to man’s dictates and needs. Man’s humanization corresponds, then, to the success of his acting upon the world, his work.

Work or labor, obviously, encompassed far more for Marx than simply holding down a job or even the more robust understanding of vocation or calling. Labor was the quintessential humanizing activity. But man does not do this in isolation. Even Marx maintained the classical conviction (from Aristotle) of man’s sociability. The isolated man is unlikely to survive. He is programmed to be with others of his own species. Hence, the historical progress of humanization through work entails cooperation. To be man is not just to be in the world, not just to act upon the world (i.e., to be a worker), but to be a worker in the world and acting upon the world amongst workers.

Following Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit—”Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged”—Marx believed that man, his true self-consciousness, his humanization, is only realized in relationship with others (other workers, that is). Humanization is a collective, mutually dependent enterprise or not at all. This necessity of cooperation, as it is situated in Marx’s paradigm, entails the politicization of man. It is only in a socialist society, a utopia, says Fromm, that “grownup man begins to unfold all his powers.”  

As man transforms the world, he transforms himself. The transformation of the world is gained, in and through material conditions, through technological advancement in conflict with existing social and economic forces. Hence, man is an historical being, a social being, and a political being, but also a technological being. That is, he achieves his self-transformation through transforming the world via technological development and economic (material) relations (i.e., the means of production). His metamorphosis, his humanization, is dependent on, and channeled through, technology. Which is to say, Marxist humanization is inextricably linked to the technological conquest of nature, maybe even human nature itself. But, with man as god, there is also a pantheistic aspect to this anthropology in that, as man objectifies nature and subjectifies himself, he becomes one with nature again. This is how alienation, the great societal sickness, is overcome.  

Knowing this, one understands the fuss over the means of production. Whoever controls the means of production, in a very real way, controls the means of humanization. The controller of the means of production dictates both the trajectory of history and the way people experience the world (the practices of life), and, therefore, human nature itself. “Man himself, in each period of history, is formed in terms of the prevailing practice of life which in turn is determined by his mode of production,” writes Fromm, channeling Marx. Accordingly, the way men experience the material world via the means of production determines the superstructure, viz., the thought processes, cultural values, and political structure of society. The superstructure, in turn, affects human relationships (especially class-based ones) which, by extension, influence (for better or worse) man’s labor, his process of humanization. Domination of the means of production is domination of man, indeed, domination of reality itself.    

Nevertheless, as Fromm points out, Marx is infinitely confident in the viability of his project (contra the more pessimistic Freud). History is a story of triumph, the achievement of man’s full potential, not the suppression of nature but its liberation, not the frustration of his instincts and aspirations but a fulfillment thereof. “For Marx, history is a march toward man’s self-realization.”

 *Stay tuned for the next portion of this series!


Image credit: @schefflermaximilian


Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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