Realism, not Romanticism, is at the heart of Marx’s philosophy. Utopian his aspirations may be, but his desire is to see the world as it is, not as it could be. To Marx, each of us is trapped within the warped limitations of a limited consciousness - a consciousness formed both by technology and by how much control we have over that technology. Each of us, by the epoch in which we live, and by the social class to which we belong, is nothing more than a cog in the wheel of historical perception - a process which he calls the economic superstructure.
To Marx, our lives are but two things - base and superstructure. The base is all those indisputable material facts of our lives: our work conditions, the power dynamics between us and our employers or fellow employees, how labor is divided between us, and our relation to the property on which we live. The superstructure consists of all those humanitarian parts of our lives which are too nebulous to be defined so basically - culture, institutions, political power structures, rituals, the State.
It’s a misnomer to believe that Marx’s materialism unified our conception of a divided reality, Marx simply changed the way in which the world was divided. Like in the older German philosophy of Kant and Hegel, we see the division of two worlds - the world of appearances, and the real world. But whereas Kant and Hegel see the ‘real’ world as an invisible place which we cannot perceive, Marx sees the ‘real’ world as the world of phenomena so easily perceptible that we take them for granted.
To Marx, all those institutions which illuminate human society are, at bottom, appearances. Everything we are, from our conception of our places in the universe to the very ways we think and talk, is determined by our relation to our workplace. This ‘base’ of our lives determines the ‘superstructure’ that determines everything of which we think our lives consist. Here is how Marx puts it:
“The method of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life . . . . It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness. In the first view, one proceeds from the consciousness as the living individual; in the second, which conforms to real life, one proceeds from the really living individuals themselves and regards consciousness only as ‘their’ consciousness….
When one studies these (revolutionary) cataclysms, one must always distinguish between the material disturbances which upset the economic conditions of production and which can be measured with scientific exactness, and the revoution which upsets the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic forms - which serve man to become conscious of the conflict and to explain it. If it is impossible to judge a man from the idea he has of himself, one cannot judge such an epoch of revolution from the idea it has of itself.”
Leave aside the jargon for a moment and consider that, just as in religion, there is something so simple about this explanation of the world that it can be extremely comforting. Every human situation, no matter how labyrinthine seeming, can be explained under this rubric with pellucid clarity. It furthermore encourages us to see the world as nothing more than a conglomeration of facts, and anything too ineffable like an ‘idea’ that has no factual or empirical basis can be summarily dismissed. it assures all its believers that deep examination of whether this notion is always true would inevitably end in folly. Yet again, like all lasting religions, meaningful critical thought has every impediment placed in its way. How many good ideas through history were dismissed because they could not immediately be proven?
For these nebulous ‘illusions’, Marx dismisses them with two words. The first is ‘phantasmagoria,’ a word much forgotten in our time but one that still holds enormous influence on us. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Phantasmagoria was a form of theater which used a special lantern (called a ‘magic lantern’) to project colorful images onto walls, screens, or smoke. In other words, it’s a direct ancestor to the Cinema, and carries with it the same relation to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave - in which the ignorant have stared into the Cave’s darkness for so long that they perceive the shadows on the walls and call it ‘reality,’ with all of its implications of pre-modern sorcery and superstition.
And it is to this sorcery, this eternally vanishing phenomenon of the State, to which Marx famously and unforgettably alludes in his most famous piece of journalism - The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
“The Constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, the entire literature, the political names and intellectual reputations, the civil law and penal code, the Liberty, Equalty, and Fraternity and the Second Sunday in May, 1852 (a mid-term election which Louis-Napoleon’s sycophants lost) - all has vanished like a phantasmagoria before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not make out to be a sorcerer.”
If Louis-Napoleon, widely regarded as a venal incompetent, can make all the progress of post-Napoleon Bonaparte France disappear, then how can there be any other explanation than that history willed it to be so?
To any European in the 1850’s, one can easily understand how all culture might seem an illusion. In the Germany of his origins, the land was divided into nearly three-hundred principalities, all of whose territories were constantly shifting. In France, nine separate governments were established between 1789 and 1852. In England, King George III was generally acknowledged to be insane for the last thirty years of his rule. The Holy Roman Empire had collapsed in 1806, and much of the territory within it changed hands from one year to the next - sometimes by means quite bloody. And each of these countries had vivid memories of the chaos brought on by Napoleon’s invasions. When Marx was alive, the State itself was ephemeral, and so were the nations who craved Statehood. So what hope was there for the permanence of the culture which such would-be nations produced? It was all ‘phantasmagoria’, a set of impermanent values for its particular time and place, dependent almost entirely upon the technologies and capital in their possession.
The first term, ‘phantasmagoria’ describes the ‘What?’ of these illusions. The second term, ‘ideology.’, describes ‘Why’ they appear. The use of the word ‘ideology’ in our time is so widespread that it almost defies further comment. But it’s important to note how Marx defines the word. The ‘ideology’ is the glue that holds the superstructure together. The Ruling Class has a self-serving ideology which justifies their rule of law, and passes their ideology off to the lower classes as incontrovertible truth. In a feudal society, a religious ideology is prevalent. A god whose word is law ordains that certain men must have power over other men. In a capitalist system, a liberal ideology is prevalent - each man must be sufficiently free or ‘liberated’ to pursue his profit margins to the maximum extent so that progress’s engine keeps running. This is the force which Marxists call, historical determinism. And it is best summed up by Marx himself, addressing the bourgeoisie in the Communist Manifesto, suddenly turning from an obfuscating failed academic to the kind of stinging oratory that recalls the prophet Isaiah singing to his vineyard.
“Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is the will of your class, made into law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of the existence of your class.”
Here, suddenly, is Marx the oratorical prophet, coming with a sword, laying out a vision for all with no jargon.
There is a kind of historical pessimism to this approach which you see in an enormous amount of German philosophy - the idea that we can never transcend the conditions of our life to arrive at any true perception is something you can find in many variations - from the tempered optimism of Hegel to the near-absolute pessimism of Spengler - to this day, it’s a huge influence on much critical theory, and just as large many, many works of art, from Wagner’s Ring right up to The Wire. Is it true?
Certainly Marx thought he was issuing a scientific truth on the same level as Newton and Darwin, and while The Critique of Political Economy was published ten months before On the Origin of Species, there is at least one passage similar enough to make one wonder if someone in London hadn’t told Marx about Darwin’s theories in advance of publication:
“A social state never dies before there has been fully developed within it the sum of all the productive forces that it contains. New relations in production, superior to the former ones, never come into being before their material reason for existence has developed in the womb of the old society. Humanity puts to itself only the riddles that it can solve, for on looking closely at the matter, one will find that the riddle is put only when the material conditions of its solution already exist, or are at least on the way to being born. As a general thesis one can consider the Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and bourgeois modes of production as the progressive steps of the economic formation of society. And the relations of bourgeois production constitute the last form of the productive process to be based on antagonism. . . . This antagonism will be resolved by the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society, so that with this society ends the prehistoric period of all human society.”
What we read here seems uncannily like an economic vision of evolution through natural selection. ‘New relations in production, superior to the former ones, never come into being before their material reason for existence has developed...’ Even if this sentence puts Darwin’s theory ass-backwards, it is still the same theory. According to Marx, necessity is the mother of invention, but according to Darwin - surely the deeper thinker - invention is the mother of necessity, a capricious mother who lets most of her offspring die. Many, many economic techniques come into being, and yet the modes of production which survive are the ones most well-fit to their particular environment.
Economics, called the ‘dismal science’ since the Victorian Age, has always existed in an uncomfortable halfway house between hard science and social science. The statistics of past economies are exact, but the prediction of future economic behavior is anything but, and so tied to human mood and motivation that there is no way to give economics the rigor of other mathematical studies. Yet as with all social sciences, its unpredictability motivates its practitioners to make its study all the more scientific. And to Marx, trying as so many 19th century thinkers did to create a systematic ‘key to all mythologies,’ what was important was to boil down all the various human motivations to all-encompassing terms which are easy to explain - like Capital, Interest, Rent, and Value.