Marx and Consciousness: Ascending From Earth to Heaven

In The German Ideology, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and Capital, Karl Marx repudiates theories of history that consider human consciousness and ideology as somehow independent of social and material conditions. Marx distinguishes himself with earlier historians, particularly Hegel, who insisted on the primacy of the idea in their understandings of history; "In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here it is a matter of ascending from earth to heaven" (German Ideology 36). For him, beliefs are less central than the material conditions of a society, as it is by being placed within a framework of social production that an individual's ideas are actually determined. Consciousness is considered to be "from the beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all" (German Ideology 44). Thus, the practical and material facets of life cannot be deemed as irrelevant in the development of consciousness, but rather a determining factor in an individuals consciousness and ideals. This concept is the basis of Marx's concept of class ideology; as ideas are materially grounded rather than 'descending from heaven', people whose material activity is analogous form similar ideas. Power struggles among classes are also reflected in the sphere of ideas. The dominance of a particular class's ideological framework and struggle for the dominance of a class ideology reflect larger struggles and transformations occurring within the material domain.

Marx notes that an individual is naturally limited by his or her 'life-activity'. For him, the limitations of an individual as defined by his or her daily activity cannot help but determine their beliefs as well as the choices they make. Consciousness is thereby integrated with the manner in which a person lives their daily life. "The social structure and the state are continually evolving out of the life-processes of definite individuals, however, of these individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people's imagination, but as they actually are, i.e., as they act, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will" (German Ideology 35-36). A person's ideas cannot be considered independently of their material life, as Hegel does. Rather, such constructs are determined by the individual's material conditions. Thus, a human being's understanding of the world is largely shaped by his or her status as a producer and can be understood as 'ideological echoes' of daily activity; "consciousness can never be anything else than conscious being, and the being of men is their actual life-process" (German Ideology 36).

This phenomenon is not restricted to individuals; but can, significantly, be applied to the various classes in a society. Class ideals spring from the conditions and necessities of its members. The bourgeois notions of private property and marriage are thus extensions of the material position of the bourgeoisie. "But don't wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, etc. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class" (Communist Manifesto). Culture, as it is understood in the larger sense, can be viewed as an outgrowth of the beliefs held by that society's dominant class, as it has the power to impose its perspectives and make them seem 'natural' or 'universal'. Thus, institutions such as the family, law, and religion as manifested in bourgeois society should not be dealt with in the terms of 'universal law' in which the bourgeois is likely to understand it. Rather, they should be viewed strictly in terms of the 'life-activity' of the bourgeois class, namely, accumulation. Ideals such as that of the free market are merely the beliefs held by the dominant class. Marx cites the case of classical economists: "There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions... Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any" (Capital 92). These constructs become the cultural norm insofar as they are imposed by the ruling class.

Thus political or ideological conflicts can be seen as motivated by the material situations of the various participants. Significantly, material conditions are not static, and as society develops new technologies, material life and the class order become mutable. "At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or - what is but a legal expression for the same thing - with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto" (Preface to The Critique of Political Economy 182). The ever-changing nature of production is unsurprisingly reflected in the realm of ideas, and transformations of material relations, an intrinsic part of Marx's conception of the material world, are manifested in theoretical conflicts.

The ideological superstructure clearly reflects the underlying material struggle, and the disappearance of old ideas or the struggle between old and new ones speaks to the social transformation that is the basis of the change. "When people speak of the ideas that revolutionize society, they do but express that fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence" (Communist Manifesto). Ideological or moral labels simply serve to obscure the mechanics of the conflict. The conflict between different ideas is thus reflexive of the basic class struggle. "All struggles within the state, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., etc., are merely the illusory forms... in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another" (German Ideology 46-47). Such mental or philosophical conflicts act as the "ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out" (Preface to The Critique of Political Economy 183). In this manner, underlying material conflicts are shown through the changes and conflicts in the ideological realm.

Thus, Marx views consciousness as interwoven with the practical elements of individuals' lives; a person's place in society conditions his or her opinions. Ideas and consciousness must necessarily be rooted in an individual's life and daily activity; earlier thinkers' notion of a 'self-sufficient philosophy' cannot accurately explain the relationship between consciousness, ideas, and life. Significantly, these ideas extend beyond the individual level such that one can speak of class-consciousness. Marx elaborates on this notion, understanding the power relations and struggles as having ramifications in the moral or ideological realm, as the dominance of one ideology or the conflict between ideologies speak to the underlying class dominance and struggles. In this way, material conditions are able to determine what human beings, as historical actors, are able to do.