‘Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels: die deutsche Ideologie’ reviewed by Michael Maidan

Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels: die deutsche Ideologie

Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2010. 232 pp., € 19.80
ISBN 9783050043821

Reviewed by Michael Maidan

About the reviewer

Michael Maidan studied philosophy in Buenos Aires, Haifa and Paris-Ouest (Nanterre). He published …


The German Ideology (GI) was first published in its current format in 1932 as part of the Marx Engels Gesamstausgabe (MEGA), this edition being the basis for its many translation and editions. The MEGA edition was preceded by a Russian translation, and by the publication of what we know today as Chapter 1: Feuerbach. In this format the book, and in particular the chapter on Feuerbach, was for a long time considered a text central for the understanding of the teachings of Marx and Engels. It was the text where, as Althusser famously said, Marx discovered the continent history.

Today, approximately 80 years after the original publication, and 165 year after Marx, Engels, and a few of their intellectual partners worked on the manuscript, the experts are not sure about the nature of the book, and in particular, of its most famous section, the chapter on Feuerbach. As a result of research on the original manuscript in view of the publication of a new scientific edition of the complete works and papers of Marx and Engels, the editorial team of the MEGA2 have concluded that the chapter on Feuerbach is most likely an editorial reconstruction –based on flimsy evidence of Marx and Engel’s auctorial intentions – of several fragments that Marx and Engels had set aside from the original manuscript for an ulterior use (for a detailed discussion see Carver, 2010) . There are at least seven different proposals of how to organize these fragments, including the one proposed by the editors of the volume to be eventually published in the MEGA2 . While their conclusions and reading of Chapter 1 has been published already in 2004 in the yearbook of the MEGA2 project, the actual volume 5, section I of the MEGA2 is still in the works, and its release has been several times postponed.

The volume Die deustsche Ideologie under review here was published in the series “Klassiker Auslegen” of the Akademie Verlag, a series of companions to major classics of the 19th and 20th century. It comprises an introductory chapter by the editor, nine chapters dealing with different aspects of the GI, one chapter by Alasdair MacIntyre on the `Theses on Feuerbach’, and a final chapter dealing with the general question: ‘What remains of the German Ideology’?, which reflects on the status of the GI and on the significance of the whole Marxian corpus in a post-communist age. In general the book gives the impression of a tight and well structured work, which in its structure seems to adhere firmly to the interpretation suggested by the editors of the MEGA2.

Harald Bluhm, who edited this volume, authored the introduction that also serves as first chapter. Titled ‘German Ideology: Context and Meaning’, this chapter seems to discharge a double duty. On the one hand, to present the reader with a general introduction to the GI. On the other, to justify the editorial policy, to explain its interpretative assumptions and to provide a general overview of the book. Bluhm states that after the fall of the ‘real existing socialism’ we can now read Marx again, not necessarily a reading that aims to make his work fashionable, but one that aims ultimately to evaluate his indirect influence, through the work of the founding fathers of the German social sciences (Weber, Simmel, Schumpeter, etc.) (2). From this point of view, to go back to the GI would mean to revisit the laboratory where Marx and Engels thought was forged (x) rather than seeking to extract a definitive set of theses (‘historical materialism’).

In the first section Bluhm dwells on the historical setting for the elaboration of the GI, the political agitation of the Vormärz period (1830-1848). He briefly introduces the different thinkers and tendencies that were active in the left wing circles of the day. This is the background for the elaboration of the manuscript of the GI, which in essence is an attempt by Marx, Engels and their associates to appropriate, take distance from and elaborate an alternative to the radical ideas of the period.

The second section discusses the current state of the research about the manuscript and a history of the reception of the GI after WWII, both in the Western Marxist and in the Communist traditions. The former accentuates those passages where Marx and Engels seem to develop a philosophy of praxis, while the latter emphasizes their embrace of positions which will later crystalize in the Communist Manifesto. This is too short a section, and the history of the reception of the GI is dealt with only in general terms, while it would have merited a chapter of its own. Bluhm prefers to underscore the tentative and experimental nature of the positions developed in the GI. Some are political, some considerations can be seen as attempts to develop a social science. Some belong to Marx, while others to his intellectual associates.

Section three discusses the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ and their different interpretations. While the ‘Theses’ are not part of the manuscript of the GI, they have been customarily printed together and in some cases as a sort of preface to the GI. Their discussion in this volume is to a certain extent a reluctant acceptance of the conventional interpretation. In his comments –which do not refer to the reading presented by MacIntyre in chapter 2 – Bluhm diagnoses an ambivalence between empirical and normative statements (12).

Section 4 turns to the question of Marx’s search for a vocabulary to grapple with the new social phenomena and problems of his time. Bluhm sees this vocabulary as based on three main premises: (i) A rejection of the contractualist interpretation of modern society; (ii) A focus on material objectivities and on the role of labor in particular; (iii) conflict as a central aspect of social theory. Bluhm signals in particular the importance of the concept of ‘division of labor’, that takes over the functions that Marx previously ascribed to the concept of alienation, a point further developed in chapter 7.

Chapter 2 deals with the `Theses on Feuerbach’. This essay by Alasdair MacIntyre stands a little outside of the general project, having as its object a text which does not belong to the GI. At the same time, it is probably the most audacious and original chapter in this book. MacIntyre’s main concern is to elucidate the eleventh thesis, and the opposition implied therein between interpretation and practice. Marx’s position is not to reject interpretation and philosophy, but to direct philosophy’s attention to what Marx calls in the first thesis ‘objective activity’ (28, MacIntyre, 1994: 279), which MacIntyre interprets as follows: an activity in which the end is such that by making that end their own, individuals are able to achieve something of universal worth embodied in some particular form of practice through cooperation with other such individuals. Objective activity is such that it cannot be reduced to an aggregate of subjective preferences of the subjects that happen to embrace it. Is the kind of practice and of practice embedded values that Hegel’s philosophy cannot adequately express, but which requires rather an Aristotelian and Thomist language, one that Marx himself did not embrace. While Marx may have been right to reject the philosophy of Hegel, by not replacing Hegel with Aristotle, he deprived himself ultimately of the tools necessary to understand the concept of objective practice. Therefore, to the extent that Marxism had to speak about morality, it had to resort either to a utilitarian or a Kantian approach to do so, even if such approaches could be reconciled with great difficulty with the historicist and sociological interpretations advocated by Marx and his disciples. MacIntyre claims further that his interpretation of the concept of ‘objective practice’ solves this difficulty, hence the implication of a road not taken.

Chapter three deals with the problem of ideology. Mathias Bohlender notes that the GI does not contain a coherent and developed theory about what Marx and Engels call variously ideology, illusions, or the ‘rule of thoughts’ (Herrschaft der Gedanken). He proposes to parse the problem of ideology into four questions: (a) What exactly is the problem with ideology?; (b) How does the ideological mechanism works?; (c) What are the presuppositions for the origin and production of ideology; (d) How can ideology as a practice of dominion be criticized, grasped and even eliminated. Bohlender devotes the main section of his paper to the discussion of two well known interpretations of Marx’s understanding of ideology. The first one, the idea of ideology as a ‘camera obscura’, has been examined in great detail in the work of Sarah Kofman of the same title. As Bohlender remarks, this metaphor can be understood in a topological or in an optical sense. The topological one, in the form of the basis/superstructure opposition, came to dominate Marxist discourse. The inversion metaphor stands in opposition to the model of alienation that Marx used in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. The former defines ideology as an inversion of real relationships, whereas the latter does it in terms of reification and separation (48). Underlying both possible views of the ideological mechanism are the questions why there is an ideology in general, and what are the conditions that made ideology possible? Marx and Engels’ answer is to propose an ‘historical political economy of knowledge’ (50), one in which the main question is not the truthfulness of ideology but its congruence or contradiction with reality (51). Ideologies relate to power and domination in a twofold way. Ideologies are practices of legitimation and justification of power relations. But ideologies can also be practices of rejection of and opposition to existing power relations. Ideologies are not merely ways of legitimation or delegitimization of pre-existing social relations. They also have, at least up to present society, a role in the constitution of social groups and their relationships. But, is there a need or place for ideology in the case of the proletarian class? Bohlender discusses briefly this question, taking into consideration the positions of Althusser, Gramsci, and Balibar. Ultimately he seems to support the interpretation that, according to Marx, the proletarian class neither needs nor have a use for ideology or for a criticism of ideology (56-7).

The next three chapters deal with specific aspects of chapter 1 of GI. They are arranged according to the reconstruction of the order of chapter 1 suggested by the editors of MEGA2. Chapter 4 deals with Marx and Engels’ conception of history (W, pp. 20-7 and 50-70; CW, pp. 31-8 and 64-72), chapter 5 with Marx and Engels’ concept and philosophy of history (W, pp. 28-36; CW, pp. 41-50) and Chapter 6 with their idea of communism and self-transformation (W, pp. 70-7; CW, pp. 81-9).

The polemical aspects of the GI, which comprises most of the text, are dealt in chapter 8 (Feuerbach), chapter 9 (Bauer), chapter 10 (Stirner) and chapter 11 (“True Socialism”). These provide useful contexts for the development of Marx’s ideas and they build on recent studies on the Vormärz period and of the radical thinkers of the period. They provide a balanced and nuanced picture of Marx’s contemporaries, and of the differences between their views and the ones that Marx and Engels held at that time.

The concluding chapter by C. Henning and D. Thomä asks what ‘remains of the German Ideology?’ The authors state that the task of assessing the relevance of this text is complicated by its polemical nature. While it continues with the work of criticism of the Hegelian heritage that Marx started in 1843, it also denounces the insufficiencies of the Young Hegelian’s approach to philosophy and its potentially ideological aspects. From among the many issues that Marx and Engels raise in the GI, Henning and Thomä chose three: the criticism of Feuerbach and the question of the relationships between history and nature; the discussion with Stirner of the problem of the relationship between individual and society; and finally, the question of the relationships between philosophy, science and action.

The relationship between philosophy, science and action can be conceived either as the substitution of lofty philosophy for earthly science and action, or as the ‘practical turn’ of philosophy, i.e. one in which philosophy will not be superseded by science and by politics but will become more attuned to them. In the GI, Marx and Engels point out that their opponents use abstract concepts detached from reality. They also claim that philosophy has a proclivity to ideology, to reduce social conflicts to a struggle between concepts, to mistake the discussions between intellectuals for the real struggles in society. These and other questions point towards a sociology of knowledge of the style developed by Mannheim. Unfortunately there is no discussion of the similarities and differences between Marx’s project and Mannheim’s, or with Bourdieu and Sahlins. The lack of detailed confrontation gives the impression that Marx’s theory is treated as a dignified ancestor to later forms of social thought, one to which, as it is usually the case with such relatives, one pays scant attention.

This book proposes a commentary to a text for which we do not have still a definitive edition, and one of whose Wirkungsgeschichte both the editor and his colleagues seem to be painfully aware. We can certainly treat the GI as an historical document of the Vormärz period. We can study the work of Marx and Engels as part of the history of radical journalism in the pre-1848 period, as part of the history of radical utopias, as history of the workers movement, and even as the ‘other’ that gave birth to contemporary social science. But to reclaim from Marx’s heritage insights that are applicable to our own reality, we need perhaps more distance from recent events. When the moment comes, we will be glad to have a definitive edition of the GI, but in itself no critical edition will do the magic.

5 February 2012


  • Carver Terrel 2010 The German Ideology never took place History of Political Thought vol. xxxi, No. 1, pp. 107-127
  • MacIntyre Alasdair 1994 The Theses on Feuerbach: A road not taken Artifacts, Representations, and Social Practice: Essays for Marx Wartofsky, Wartofsky, Marx W., Carol C. Gould, and R S. Cohen. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 277-290.
  • Marx Karl and Friedrich Engels 1976 The German Ideology Collected Works London, Lawrence and Wishart, volume 5 (referred in the text as CW)
  • Marx Karl and Friedrich Engels 1978 Die deutsche Ideologie Werke Berlin, Dietz Verlag, Band 3 (referred in the text as W)

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