The German Ideology
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
1846

Before there was The Communist Manifesto there was The German Ideology, Marx’ and Engels’ first thorough articulation of the theoretical framework that would come to be called Marxism – its historical materialism, its critique of capitalism, its idea of socialism. It is, really, an outline or notebook, a text in which Marx and Engels work through the insights and critical appraisals of other thinkers in order to set out what’s different about their own analysis. That is, The German Ideology is not the place to go for the most sophisticated or polished word on Marx’s framework; but it is the place to go to see how Marx got to his framework, how he put it all together in the early years, and where the origins lie of so many other of his and Engels’ works.

Before Marx was Marx, he was a young philosopher hugely influenced by Georg Hegel, mentored by Bruno Bauer and associated with a group of young thinkers (the Young Hegelians) who critically followed in the Hegelian tradition while articulating a version that was more utopian and more politically-engaged. The book represents Marx’s break with those philosophers and his and Engels’ presentation of their alternative view – it is Marx critiquing his friends and teachers, pushing philosophy squarely into politics, and setting out his conception of historical analysis, what would come to be called ‘the materialist conception of history’. History is the real development of production, of the way human being produce their existence. How we exist in the world shapes who we are. Division of labour, notions and forms of ownership – these arise alongside and in relation to the ways we produce. The ideas of a society – religion, political ideology, philosophy and so on – are shaped by and in relation to the structures of power that mark that society; the dominant ideas are always those that are consistent with and articulated by those who wield economic and political power. Ideas, then, are not independent of human beings or the ways human beings live and work in the material world. History is about what people do. How we feed, how we build, how we distribute. You want to understand a society? Figure out how people in that society work and why.

The German Ideology is early Marx, and it is Marx becoming the political philosopher who will change the world. It is Marx working through his own education, his own influences, reconsidering them,  moving beyond them, taking the kernels he values and re-making them into something new. He and Engels didn’t publish it – that happened only in the 1930s, when the growth of socialism as political entity led to the publication of anything and everything its theoretical high priests had ever scribbled. But it is one of the most important of Marx’ texts, precisely because it is an early draft, precisely because it does show Marx working out his ideas, confronting his own intellectual inheritance and transcending it. This is Marx between where came from and where he went. Oh, he wrote better stuff. He wrote more nuanced stuff. He wrote smarter stuff. But he never wrote anything else quite like this, as much to himself as to an audience.

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