Looking at the Relationship between Marx’s Conception of ‘Being’ and ‘Consciousness’ in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and the third of the Theses on Feuerbach (1845).
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[Pre-note : I have placed what I think is the central quote under consideration in bold with original German following in square brackets. Note in the German, Marx uses the noun ‘Sein’ and not ‘Dasein’ or ‘Existenz’. The translation is given as ‘existence’. Also ‘sondern umgekehrt’ should have been translated ‘but,on the contrary’. In my opinion (and Iam not a German scholar but I am familiar with written and spoken German) a better translation would have been ‘It is not the consciousness of men which determines their being but, on the contrary, it is their social being which determines their consciousness’. At the beginning of the quote, Progress have translated ‘Leben’ as ‘existence’ rather than ‘life’. So both ‘Sein’ and ‘Leben’ are rendered into the generic ‘existence’ without the distinctions which, in my opinion, Marx intended. ‘Activity’ would have been better than ‘existence’. They did a similar ‘job’ on Capital when they translated it. And the Penguin edition is just as bad. Where one translates correctly the other mistranslates and vice versa so you end up with the scenario where you have to constantly cross-check between the two editions to get the correct translation.]
In 1859, Marx writes in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy :
‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. [Es ist nicht das Bewußtsein der Menschen, das ihr Sein, sondern umgekehrt ihr gesellschaftliches Sein, das ihr Bewußtsein bestimmt.] At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.
Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation’
[Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas.]
And in 1845, we have Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach:
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to 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-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice. [Marx. 3rd Thesis on Feuerbach]
The relationship between the earlier and later conception appears to raise the problem of how the later conception can be accommodated to the earlier work in the Theses on Feuerbach, especially the 3rd thesis. It appears to contradict the work on Feuerbach. Critically, this is important in the understanding of Marx’s method and approach in his work.
Marx here uses the category of ‘being’ (or social being) or ‘existence’ (or social existence) rather than ‘matter’, ‘objective conditions’, ‘objective reality’, ‘social conditions’ ‘circumstances’, etc. Why? Initially, it seems to be a strange choice because ‘being’ and ‘existence’ appear to be the most abstract of categories. Hegel, as we all know, starts with this category in his Logic. Then Engels, with his usual acumen, notes that Hegel is confronted with the much-debated problematic of making the transition to ‘Nothing’. Some have asserted that a close reading of the first paragraphs of the Logic suggests that Hegel actually ‘imports’ – from his own ‘Verstandlich’, ‘ausserlich’ realm of ‘externality’ – the second category in the exposition rather than actually deriving it from the first category of ‘Being’. The determinations of the category of ‘Consciousness’ only come later as a ‘more concrete and developed’ characterisation of the intial category. In the Encyclopaedia, ‘Being’ is the very first category (in the Logic) and ‘Consciousness’ is only posited later and elaborated in and from ‘subjective spirit’ in the third part of the Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Mind. Consciousness, in Hegel, therefore appears as a more concrete category than Being.
Hegel’s difficulty in the first paragraph of the Logic arises because within the realm of ‘the Idea’, by starting with ‘Being’ as the most abstract of categories, he is unable to derive ‘Nothing’ because no mediation can arise from the content of the first category. The first category of ‘Being’ is absolutely identical with ‘Nothing’, the second category. Both categories are absolutely identical with each other without a differentiated content emerging within the category of ‘Being’ itself to engender the mediation which is necessary to posit the third category of ‘Becoming’ (Werden). Hence the accusation that Hegel ‘imports’ ‘Nothing’ (without mediation) in order to posit ‘Becoming’ and then happily ‘progresses’ with the whole exposition in the Logic as if nothing has happened like stepping over the body of a dead man on your front doorstep as you walk out to take your morning constitutional in the fresh air of the park. The rather astounding implication of this is that Hegel’s whole subsequent exposition in the Logic is, formally, founded upon ‘non-derivation’ in the first category i.e. is a compromise (or shortcut) in the dialectical method ab initio. That is, it is founded upon a formalism : an importation of an underived (and underivable) category. I leave others to investigate this assertion that Hegel ‘cheated’ in the first pages of the Logic. Let’s move on from where we are, endeavouring to take aspects of it with us, if you’ll pardon the philosophical sarcasm.
Accordingly, in Hegel, ‘Being’ is the most abstract of categories because his exposition takes place within the realm of the ‘Idea’. In the Logic, he “progresses” from this category so that each superseding category contains the wealth of the totality of the antecedent categories incorporated within it. And hence, his exposition becomes increasingly more concrete as it unfolds. Consciousness, accordingly, in Hegel, is posited as a more concrete category than Being or Existence. Marx, in Capital, starts with the commodity and his exposition, like Hegel’s in the Logic, becomes increasingly more concrete, incorporating an increasingly richer determination as it progresses. This is why Volume 3 of Capital gives a deeper understanding of the nature of capital vis-a-vis Volume 1, the findings of which become incorporated in the later volume.  Production –  Circulation –  Production as a whole.
Marx does not start with the ‘Idea’. He starts with consciously active humanity in its relationship with Nature with ‘consciousness’ being intrinsic to the dialectics of this relationship. This gives us a clue to the way in which Marx uses the terms ‘being’ and ‘social being’ in his famous passage quoted above and in its relationship to the earlier third thesis on Feuerbach.
Marx, I think, uses the term ‘social being’ here (inversely to Hegel) in the most concrete sense of the term, to embrace the totality of social being in its infinite variety and diversity, of changing conditions and social relations inclusive of consciousness and consciousness-mediated human activity itself which is intrinsic to this ‘Being’. Marx’s ‘Being’ (in contradistinction to Hegel’s) is the sublation, concentration and expression of all the endlessly complex determination and negation which has preceded it, including consciousness-mediated human activity. It is the richness of social existence to the fullest extent in all its inexhaustible complexity.
Marx, in doing this, locates his dialectical conception of consciousness within an adequate epistemological and ontological relationship to ‘Being’. Then consciousness – as an inseparable product and mediating aspect of man’s activity in Nature, its historical origination and development as an intrinsic part of this immense, unfolding and enduring historical process – can be grasped in its relation to this process of ‘Being’. Taken in the broadest epistemological sense, ‘Being’ is a presupposition for ‘Consciousness’ so that ‘Consciousness’ is rooted in ‘Being’. ‘Consciousness’ is not a presupposition for ‘Being’. After all, ‘Being’ can only ‘determine consciousness’ when and where consciousness has actually ‘come into being’.
In his Afterword to the 2nd German Edition of Volume 1 of Capital, Marx writes…
‘My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea”, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea”. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought’ (p.29, Volume 1 Capital, Lawrence&Wishart, 1954)
It is interesting to note that Marx here uses the term ‘material world’.
And this process of coming into being of consciousness was itself a long drawn out process in the evolution of ‘Being’. But once consciousness has arisen as an inseparable part of the process of the origination of human culture itself, then consciousness becomes a mediating aspect of ‘Being’ as is the case with all determinate forms which come into being. This, of course, does not deny the primacy of ‘Being’ over ‘Consciousness’ but merely locates the latter within its adequate and intrinsic relationship to this totality which is the ‘Being’, in my opinion, to which Marx is referring. Furthermore, it does not deny the inalienable role of consciousness in man’s activity and therefore its ‘determining’ and orienting role in that selfsame activity. The consciousness-mediated activity of humanity is an organic part of this ‘Being’, this totality of conditions.
The categories of ‘Being’ and ‘Consciousness’ are, in my opinion, incommensurable within the relationship within which Marx posits them (in the Critique) if ‘Consciousness’ is grasped as something ‘external’ (ausserlich) to ‘Being’. In my opinion, they cannot be ‘understood’ in this ‘external’ way.
I think we can only grasp them (Being and Consciousness) in their forever unfolding and changing relations, in the specific negations of the relation and the simultaneous return (negated negation, ‘absolute negativity’) of this relation at a higher stage of their identity and difference. ‘Being’ envelops ‘Consciousness’ within itself whilst the latter is distinct from the former in this identity. Consciousness is expressed in historically determinate, always altering, forms of ‘being’. [Some people on the list may already be starting to think that Iam falling into Ideenmystik.] However, it seems to me (and I reserve the right to be wrong) that it is only if we include ‘Consciousness’ as intrinsically contained within ‘Being’ that the two categories then become commensurable and that Marx’s conception can be admitted and grasped. Only then does ‘the social being of men determine their consciousness and not their consciousness determine their being’ Furthermore, only by this inclusion is Marx’s conception consonant with and is able to be accommodated by and integrated with his earlier Theses on Feuerbach, and especially the third thesis.
If we include ‘Consciousness’ within ‘Being’ then it is what I refer to as ‘the totality of conditions’ (Marx’s ‘social being’ in the above quote) which determines consciousness and not the other way around. The primacy is found in this totality of conditions determining consciousness so that what is ‘determined’ is already an intrinsic part of the ‘determining’ conditions. Within the dynamics of the internal reciprocity of this paradox, this ‘totality of conditions’ is then equivalent to Marx’s ‘social being’ so that within the unfolding of the historical process, the development of consciousness becomes mediated by this totality of conditions and this totality of conditions itself mediated (although not with the same degree of primacy) by the evolution of consciousness itself.
Great social movements come into being – with their inseparable forms of consciousness – within the totality of the ‘determining’ historical conditions integral to which are all manner of different forms and aspects of consciousness embodied and manifest in different classes, movements, groupings, etc; within the ‘complex of complexes’. The subject and object of history are intrinsic to this totality, bound into one in their distinction and relationship to each other. These movements do not emerge ‘ready-made’ but only out of the movement of, on the ground of, and in the process of the relationship to, this totality. They are ‘derived’ – unlike Hegel’s category of ‘Nothing’ in his ‘Idea’ – out of the totality of these historically-posited conditions, out of this historically-posited ‘Being’.
‘Consciousness’ is an intrinsic part of the totality of the conditions which constitute ‘Being’ and is therefore an intrinsic part of the conditions which, paradoxically, ‘determine consciousness’ itself. Consciousness comes into being historically and thenceforth, in its ‘being’, mediates ‘Being’ through humanity’s active relationship with the totality of ‘Being’. Taken as a whole, Consciousness is derived from Being but Marx does not imply here that Consciousness is not intrinsic in the mediation of this Being in the actual historical unfolding of man’s conscious activity.
This, in my opinion, is how we relate and accommodate this later conception (1859) to Marx’s work in the 1840s. This, accordingly, transcends the theoretical inconsistency of a metaphysical conception that ‘consciousness’ cannot be a determining aspect of this totality of conditions. Depending on the specificity of this totality of historical conditions, consciousness itself can play an absolutely central and pivotal role in the unfolding of events and even, to a certain extent, can assert a degree of primacy within the unfolding of specific events. The activity of humanity is mediated by consciousness, regardless of its form i.e. human activity is consciousness-mediated and therefore, as such, an intrinsic part of this ‘determining’ and orienting activity and of ‘social being’ as a whole.
If I may, just to give a couple of references from military history. Caesar’s victory at Alesia in 52 BC and Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar in 1650 did not depend on ‘objective conditions’ alone. If we study these battles, we can see that ‘consciousness’ played a vital and pivotal role in both victories against all the odds of ‘objective conditions’ which were decidedly against both Caesar at Alesia and Cromwell at Dunbar at the time. It was the conscious (subjective!) evaluation of changing conditions made by Cromwell and his generals, and the decisions which they subsequently took and acted upon, that made possible the defeat of Leslie and his Scottish Covenanters at Dunbar. The ‘conditions’, of course, had to ‘change’ but victory would not have been possible without the ‘subjective evaluation’ of them. The possibility of making other decisions was there which could so easily have led to defeat for Cromwell’s army. As things turned out, Cromwell (great tactician as he was) assembled his army before dawn and attacked the enemy (who had manoeuvered themselves into a wedge-shaped cul-de-sac the previous day) at first light whilst many were still asleep in their beds. It was a complete rout. Against all the previous ‘objective’ odds.