Red Letter
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Theses On Feuerbach
by Karl Marx (1845)
1845/88
Estimated Reading Time: 7 min


An excerpt of C.J. Arthur's introduction to the German Ideology

"All of this early work [of Marx and Engels], the turn towards materialism, the critique of the State, the realisation of the importance of civil society and hence of political economy, bore splendid fruit when in 1845-46 Marx and Engels achieved a synthetic world outlook, later called historical materialism, set out in Part One of The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach from the same period. Up to this time Marx and Engels would not have been considered by their contemporaries as especially different from Feuerbach or Hess—but the breakthrough represented by The German Ideology marks them off formally from their German philosophical past and also from all varieties of socialism and communism current at the time. It goes without saying that even after 1846 almost everything remained still to be done—the important thing is that the groundwork for a conceptual framework mapping out a whole line of march, with almost endless possibilities, is here indicated.

"If one was to single out the most fundamental idea in The German Ideology, which is discovered in the 1844 Manuscripts and is assumed by Capital, it would be that man produces himself through labour. He has neither a fixed unchanging nature, purely biologically determined (as a present-day trend of obviously conservative implications would have it); but neither does he develop himself in accordance with some spiritual essence, as so many idealists have pretended. There is rather a dialectically conceived relation between his nature as determined by the conditions of his life, and the practical transformation of those conditions. The link between the two is labour—in its broadest sense.

"It follows that one cannot speak of "Man" as such, except at a highly abstract level. History is made by particular kinds of men, with specific needs and problems, and specific conditions of life determining the possibility of a solution to those problems."

I

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism—that of Feuerbach included—is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism—which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence, in The Essence of Christianity, he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation. Hence he does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary”, of “practical-critical”, activity.


II

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth—i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

III

Marx wrote the "Theses on Feuerbach" in the spring of 1845 as he and Engels were starting their collaborative work The German Ideology. More than forty years later, Engels found them in one of the notebooks that had come into his possession after his friend died. He published them as an appendix to his essay of 1888 on Ludwig Feuerbachand the End of Classical German Philosophy, and described them in the foreword to this essay as " the brilliant germ of the new world outlook."
Engels made a few small changes in the "Theses" when he published them in 1888: he added the phrase "in Robert Owen, for example," in parentheses, at the end of the first paragraph of Thesis ' III; italicized "social product" in Thesis VII; italicized "contemplative" and placed quotation marks around "civil society" in Thesis IX.

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.


IV

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis.

But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.


V

Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants contemplation; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.


VI

Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.

In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:

  1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract—isolated—human individual.
  2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.

VII

Feuerbach, consequently, does not see that the “religious sentiment” is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyses belongs to a particular form of society.


VIII

All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.


IX

The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.


X

The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.


XI

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

 
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