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Karl Marx: Prophet of Authenticity, Part II

This is the second installment of a three-part series. Part I can be viewed here

Inauthentic Man

Marx’s final confidence notwithstanding, he (obviously) was taken up with the proximate, intervening problems standing in between man and his destiny. Namely, that modern man in the capitalist epoch of history is not living authentically. As a cog in the “automatic system” he is alienated from his labor which means that he is alienated from both himself and his fellow laborer. Society is, therefore, gravely ill. Self-estrangement is the disease that ails it.

The fundamental problem for Marx is that modern industrialized, capitalist economies are a confusion of subject and object: the laborer has become an object of the capitalist machine rather than the other way around. As the relationship between subject and object is reversed, the relations between subjects (laborers) are corrupted. Unnatural, unhealthy subordination permeates everything. Rather than man being humanized through his work, his product is commodified and thereby “fetishized.” As a result, human qualities, whether in the personified commodity or the commodified person, are evaluated as things rather than people.

As Koren discerns, Marx’s conception of alienation is that of, in modern parlance, inauthenticity. Man’s self-expression is found in his being at work in and at the world. Man becomes estranged from himself and the world when he is materially prevented from being his true self in his work or deprived of the product of his self-expression. He can no longer live sincerely. He can no longer express himself externally in accordance with what he is internally. 

Capitalist regimes force workers to work for wages rather than ownership of products. This frustrates the self-expression of the worker, he becomes inauthentic. To overcome this forced alienation, work must be humanized in that the product of labor must be given back to the laborers, and so too the means of production.  Man is estranged from his true essence and, therefore, lives inauthentically, inhumanly. Under the oppression of the capitalists, the worker is forced to realize himself as something other than that which is in harmony with his most basic, natural proclivities. This frustrates the progress of humanization throughout history.

To be fully human is to be authentic. To be authentic, to be one with oneself, neighbor, and the world is to be a laborer in possession of his product, a state of affairs allegedly precluded by capitalism. Fromm summarizes:  

Alienation then, is, for Marx, the sickness of man… The sickness can be cured only when it has reached its peak; only the totally alienated man can overcome the alienation… Socialism is the answer; it is a society in which man becomes the conscious subject of history, experiences himself as the subject of his powers and thus emancipates himself from the bondage to things and circumstances.

And melding Freud with Marx, Fromm situates neurosis (i.e., the dominance of one passion over the “total personality”) as the inevitable outcome of alienation. Neurosis as a pathological phenomenon, can, of course, grip a whole society. The neurosis of alienation influences, and is influenced by, the social unconscious or “those areas of repression which are common to most members of a society,” that is, the repression of awareness of experience— an exercise in mass and individual self-deception (i.e., false consciousness). To cure neurosis the unconscious reality within us must be made conscious.

On both the personal and societal levels, alienation must be overcome for humanization to resume. “Only when I can distinguish between the world outside and myself, that is, only if the world outside becomes an object, can I grasp it and make it my world, become one with it again.” The remedy for Marx (per Fromm):

Socialism, in Marx’s sense, can only come, once man has cut off all primary bonds, when he has become completely alienated and thus is able to reunite himself with men and nature without sacrificing his integrity and individuality.

Liberation is as much psychological, spiritual, and moral as it is physical and relational. Marx followed Hegel in his understanding of human evolution in society, with obvious modifications. In each epoch of history man is simultaneously sick (alienation) and not sick because each stage, including that of alienation in industrial society, is a necessary step in the grand, linear, certain scheme of history, the triumphant story of man’s humanization.  

Authentic Revolution

To bring about emancipation, the proletariat—they alone being the truly revolutionary class—must become politically self-conscious. That is, they must awaken to their state of oppression and dehumanization vis a vis the capitalist structure of society which has produced the alienation under which they suffer, and their solidarity with others like themselves. Political self-consciousness proceeds political action. It provides the strength of authenticity necessary to overthrow bourgeois supremacy. Thereafter a perfect community of social men can be founded by the workers.

In the future and final existence of the humanized worker, nothing will be politicized; there will be no capital-“S” state at all. Political self-consciousness is a revolutionary means to a transcendent end. There is, therefore, a sense in Marxist thought in which, although inevitable, this process must be expedited.

The revolution must be violent. “Only in a revolution,” wrote Marx, can the proletariat “succeed in ridding itself of all the much of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” The capitalist regime is motivated by injustice (i.e., profit) which must be totally eradicated. There is no path for reconciliation here; no “patching up of the capitalistic order of society.” Piecemeal reform is counterproductive. So too are any attempts to subdue class antagonism, which are motivated by “anxiety that the proletariat, under the pressure of its revolutionary position, may go too far.” Rather, the revolution must be “permanent.” The “abolition of classes,” not their artificial harmony, is the goal. In the interest of authentic revolution, Marx was against “better wages and a more secure existence for the workers.” Such concessions would only serve to “break their revolutionary potency” and lull them back into the sleep of estrangement.

Once the revolution has succeeded in its initial stages, but before the perfect social community of laborers can be established, there will be a transition period of sorts. During said period, the state—which will, at the final day, be abolished as superfluous—temporarily endures as “nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” It is during this period that all capital would be wrested from the grimy fingers of the bourgeoisie. All resources and instruments of production would be centralized and organized by the new proletariat ruling class. The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

Much of Marx’s vision was instituted by Lenin and his Bolsheviks immediately upon taking power. Private property was abolished; church property was confiscated; financial institutions were nationalized; factories were seized by workers; and so on. Reminiscent of the aspirations of today’s would-be revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, within a week of gaining control, issued a Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia in which the persecuted minority groups were promised political self-determination and the abolition of national and religious disabilities. A few weeks later, class privileges were dissolved, and the Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People was issued.

The Advent of Authentic Man

In establishing the standpoint of the oppressed— an idea further developed by Georg Lukacs in his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat“— as the key to emancipatory revolution, as a subjective basis for a humanized world order, Marx reveals himself to be an idealist as much as a materialist. The decisive feature of Marx’s theory of history, in the end, remains Hegelian. True enough, for Marx, as he says in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” At the same time, the power of consciousness, progressively emerging in each epoch, over the material forces of body and life rules the day, and, in some sense, is at the root of his diagnosis of alienation. As Mark Poster puts it, “The entire analysis of the organization and exploitation of labor is subordinate, in one sense, to Marx’s conviction that the [true] subject’s freedom to act upon its ideas is violated under the capitalist mode of production.” We might otherwise define the “subject’s freedom to act upon its ideas” as authenticity, or the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. The emergence of authentic man turns the wheels of history. 

The Authenticity of the Oppressed

Marx’s anthropology of authenticity has been delivered to the contemporary social justice consciousness by messengers besides Marx himself. Perhaps most notable among them is Paulo Freire, the father of critical pedagogy, his theory of which was demonstrated in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a fundamental text for critical educators that is suffused with the Marxist anthropology of authenticity and humanization. Freire’s work is infused with Marx, Lukacs, Marcuse, and Fromm, but also with early postcolonial theorists like Franz Fanon. Freire’s influence in modern education theory is surpassed, perhaps, only by John Dewey.

In the opening line of the book, Freire declares that “humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem.” Concern for this perennial problem leads inexorably to “recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality.” The eternal conflict between the two necessarily infers the person as “an uncompleted being.” Only those persons conscious of their incompleteness, their alienation, can pursue the remedy: liberation.

The presence of dehumanization is not a “given destiny” but the “result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.”

Alluded to earlier is that the first step toward liberation involves recognizing that oppression is not inevitable and inescapable but “a limiting situation” which the oppressed can transform. This acknowledgement of the relative power dynamics, the negotiability of the status quo, that the oppressed live in a dialectical relationship with the oppressor, must become the “motivating force for liberating action.”

Sooner or later, posits Freire, living in a perpetual state of uncompletedness and “unauthenticity” (dehumanization) leads the oppressed to “struggle against those who made them so.” But first, to “surmount the situation of oppression,” they must “critically recognize its causes” and thereafter create (and re-create) a “new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity. But the struggle to be more fully human has already begun in the authentic struggle to transform the situation.”

Importantly, by liberating themselves from the conditions of dehumanization imposed upon them by the oppressor regime, the oppressed also liberate and, therefore, humanize the oppressors. This is an “act of love.” “The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves.” To Freire, though the oppressors are to blame, both parties are trapped in a dehumanizing spiral. The oppressor who dehumanizes is also dehumanized thereby. “Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.” The oppressors possess only oppressive power, not liberative power that is perfected in weakness.

Indeed, the oppressors have not been forged in the crucible of subjugation and, therefore, lack the critical consciousness to see it. In short, they live inauthentically, in discordance with the reality of what they themselves are doing. In Marx, the proletariat was the only revolutionary class and, therefore, the class that represents all other classes. Freire does the same thing through the more amorphous notion of the oppressed class. They alone can emancipate humanity; they alone are humanity’s representatives. Their revolution and eventual, transitional dictatorship are, therefore, totally justified and not fundamentally oppressive (regardless of means and mode).   

Make no mistake, per Freire, the oppressed must be comprehensively liberated. Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor class will only result in a form of “false generosity,” by which Freire means something like Derrick Bell’s interest convergence thesis (itself an evidently Marxist idea). Softening oppressive power strengthens it because it allows it to adapt better to the awakening consciousness of the oppressed. For good measure, Freire adds that “Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift… Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.” To enact and secure this conquest the oppressed class must become the vanguard of all other classes, including the oppressors themselves. Before any of this can be done, before authentic praxis can take shape, however, the oppressed must become aware of their own predicament vis a vis their oppressors. 

The central problem for Freire and his disciples is discerning how this critical consciousness is to be awakened, how the oppressed are to be reeducated. Freire describes this process by repurposing the language of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John (a reeducation of the latter by the former as to man’s true end and means of salvation).

How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be hosts of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy… The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization. Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction [i.e., conflict] is superseded by the humanization of all people.

Freire’s point here is that the oppressed must overcome their “fear of freedom.” Because the oppressed, due to the hegemony of the oppressor, internalize the “image of the oppressor,” internalize his consciousness, and adopt his “guidelines” they are “fearful of freedom,” and their vision of humanization is retarded. The oppressed harbor a duality in their “innermost being.” They are divided within themselves, i.e., inauthentic, and living in fear of a lie, bound by the chains of illusion.

Without freedom they cannot live authentically and pursue full humanity. Yet, because of their condition, they fear the means to authenticity, freedom itself. For Freire, the predicament of the oppressed is something akin to widespread, societal Stockholm syndrome which can only be remedied by mass humanization; mass authentication, if you will. Marx had already established the only possible means to this end: revolution. And the one inaugurated by Freire was violent in its own way. 


Image credit: @bboellinger

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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