The German Ideology

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The German Ideology (Die Deutsche Ideologie) is a text comprising two volumes written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1845. The first volume critiques German philosophers Feuerbach, Bauer and Stirner. The second volume critiques contemporary German Socialism. In the brief handwritten preface to the work, Marx notes the unscientific manner in which the philosophers to be criticized denounce the Hegelian view. While they protest against the ideas that have dominated the world of men they continue to accept "that the real world is a product of the world of ideas."[1]

Volume 1. Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks

I. Criticism of Feuerbach and exposition of historical materialism

Marx objects that the struggle to do away with Hegel's Absolute Spirit has taken place in the world of ideas. The young Hegelians have built their own thought upon fragments of Hegel's system such that "each takes one aspect of the Hegelian system and turns this against the whole system as well as against the aspects chosen by others."[2] . The dogmatic acceptance of the Hegelian logic by all of these critics – e.g., Stirner, Bauer, Feuerbach – means that even as each of them claim to go beyond Hegel's categories they continue to grant existence to a supersensible world beyond material existence. Inasmuch as their conceptualizations of history criticize the effects of Hegelian 'illusions of consciousness' and demand a new view of life, they seem to make a philosophical advance. However, Marx points out that insofar as they merely exchange one form of consciousness for another, they remain thoroughgoing idealists.[3]

For Marx, the weakness of transcendental idealism as a starting point of history is its detachment from the material conditions of life. "The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals."[4] The organization by men of the production of the means of subsistence is the "mode of life" that Marx says distinguishes men from animals and constitutes the basis of their social interactions. The problem of Hegel’s philosophy is the appearance of an opposition of ideas but with no connection to material life. According to Marx, insofar as philosophers base their thought on ideas conceived as separate from material facts of existence, they remain in the discursive space of Hegelian 'shapes of consciousness' and, therefore, have not left the Hegelian system. To the contrary, the system of relations Marx proposes in The German Ideology overcomes the Hegelian view insofar as it originates not in ideas or consciousness but in "real individuals, their activity, and the material conditions of their life."[5] How we define individuals will be based not on abstractions but on their production, the concrete manner of their production, the conditions of production and, finally, the result of their production. Conceived within the larger framework of populations, the organization of production can be construed as a conglomeration of productive forces through which the division of labor, i.e., the organization of work – for example, commercial, agricultural, industrial – creates the conditions by which opposition can be seen to arise between classes. Marx equates these stages of development with forms of property, "i.e., the existing stage in the division of labour determines also the relations of individuals to another with reference to the material, instrument and product of labour" [Emphasis added].German Ideology, 38</ref> Accordingly, Marx gives a history of "the various stages of development in the division of labour as just so many different forms of property" in order to trace the appearance of the historical conditions of opposition from which result "the antithesis of town and country" and of industry and commerce - the foundation of his theorization of base and superstructure. [6]

The third form of property described by Marx appears in the feudal system and represents for the nobility a necessary organization of economic and political arrangements. Ideas, conceptions, and ideologies descend not from abstract conditions posited by German philosophy but from the antagonisms, and material conditions, of the "life-process."[7] In this way ideas are never dependent upon or the cause of actual existence as the young Hegelians supposed but are derived from material existence. In certain respects, Marx’s existential reading of consciousness as a mode of reading history that should not be divorced from experience does not seem to be as far removed from Hegel as he would like if we accept Alexandre Kojève's immanent reading of Hegel’s philosophy.[8] However, what Marx proposes is not merely an immanent starting point but the abolishing of a historical theory of consciousness. Marx’s contribution can be distinguished from an immanent reading of Hegelian philosophy if the argument of the Ideology concerning consciousness - that is, Marx’s assertion of the inadequacy of 'consciousness' as a viable philosophical standpoint - is taken seriously. In this respect, the conclusion that any true revolution must take place in concrete existence bears on the criticism of Feuerbach. According to Marx, Feuerbach resorts to the use of universals in his descriptions of the world and in so doing fails to account for actual historical elements of that sensuous world. Further, although Feuerbach is a type of materialist, his characterization of man and nature as objective ideals implies an essentialization in which materialism and history go their separate ways.

In Marx's view, to conceive of man or of philosophy one must first define life. "But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life."[9] An "earthly basis for history," however, implies the creation of new needs, the creation of which Marx considers to be an historical act. In the creation of a conceptualization of these new needs can be seen the beginning of the theorization of the base and superstructure, a formulation of which is necessary if the class ruling over material forces is to properly regulate and universalize the production and the dissemination of ideas. "Men, who daily re-create their own life, begin to make other men, to propagate their kind: the relation between men and women, parents and children, the family."[10].

The progress of the ideas superimposed upon man are qualified at each stage such that the social relation which is the family unit is subsumed into larger populations with new and greater needs. Marx reinterprets this process by turning upside down Hegel’s 'three moments.' He redefines them as a) the original first need of life to maintain itself, b) the appearance – during satisfaction of a) – of new needs, and c) the inevitable development of new social relations through the fulfillment of the previous two 'moments,' therefore the necessity and appearance of abstraction from the point of view of the power in possession of the means of production. The continual change in connections thus represents a passing of life into 'the concept,' i.e., a history which to the extent that it is a history can be conceived as a consciousness. "But," writes Marx, "even from the outset this is not 'pure' consciousness."[11].

In contradiction to those who view consciousness as a transcendental starting point, for Marx, consciousness is not an abstraction but a social product arising from material life. It is in the description of the first moment that the structure Marx employs resembles that of Hegel, e.g., in the assertion that "Consciousness is, at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment."[12]. However, care must be taken in acceptance of this conclusion insofar as Marx's first, immediate, moment represents a consciously instinctual form of material production, a historical moment rather than an instantiation of consciousness. it is from this moment that the division of labor arises. However, this moment enters history only when the division of material and mental labor becomes apparent. The inequality of distribution and interests is clearly revealed in the family inasmuch as within the family there is an uneven disposition of labor and property. From this, the elements of class struggle can be drawn concerning larger populations, those productive forces within a state that have arisen from the conglomerations of tribes or families.

In a conclusion not lacking its Hegelian trace, Marx asserts that insofar as particular and common interests become divided with the development of the division of labor, man becomes alienated from his own production. The division of labor, the manner of the development of productive forces, concentrates production in such a way that it becomes an alien force in which both the materials and the products of labor are unknown. Marx departs from Hegel, however, in the way that he conceives of alienation and interest. The division of labor is not a concept or state of affairs but must be conceived as activity. In the same way, Marx defines communism not in conceptual but concrete terms. Historical materialism entails all of history to the extent that history provides the moments to be abolished through its own unfolding. History cannot be conceived to evolve from a theory of ideal natures; rather, it unfolds through concrete transformations of world-historical, empirical, relations.

On the basis of the previous, Marx now theorizes that 1) there will come a point in the development of productive forces in which machinery and money come to represent disruptive rather than productive forces insofar as the estrangement of production results in a class deprived of the advantages of their own labor, and 2) that revolutionary struggle in that case will be directed against the class in power, the class in control of the means of production, and 3) that this revolution, one which will effect a dissolution of classes and labor, is to be conducted by "the class that no longer counts as a class within society"[13] and 4) that production on a large scale of such a communist 'consciousness' will require a revolution, that is, the establishment of a "real ground of history” which will rid society of the chimerical ideas that up to now have been the products of its consciousness.

Feuerbach's mistake, albeit unintentional, was to make communism subservient to a 'nature' external to material existence insofar as such presumption of such a nature assigns to each man and thing an 'essence' beyond material conditions of experience. While Feuerbach grants importance of material existence he still clings in some way to Hegel’s transcendental architectonic. But how does history come to be 'retroactively' organized in this way? And how has the Hegelian idea come to predominate? Marx theorizes that "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time the ruling intellectual force."[14] Although it may appear that there is something arbitrary about the ideas that prevail in a given epoch, underlying Feuerbach's mistake is the failure to understand that such concepts are produced and that the development of particular universalizations of ideas depends upon the rule-makers who benefit by such an organization of productive forces. For Marx, the Hegelian system marks the high point of this philosophical tendency.

The entire conception of a society, its zeitgeist, then, is charged by the prevailing dominant material force. But if such a force should cease to be in power it is still possible that, from ideas already placed into production, a concept of history may arise - as, says Marx, is the case in speculative philosophies such as Hegel's - in which man is turned into a concept - a self-consciousness external to material life.

To realize this truth, that the illusion of a conceptual framework has been imposed upon material life, Marx claims that one need only "separate the ideas of those ruling for empirical reasons, under empirical conditions and as corporeal individuals, from these rulers."[15] When the 'mystical' imposition of a reconstructed history by the few upon the many is exposed, one then can we see the advantage that such an organization of product gives to the ruling class.

The importance of the criticism of Feuerbach is found in Marx' distinction of instruments of production arising in nature (base) and those created by civilization (superstructure). These two powers, of nature and society, function under distinct theses that result in different forms of domination. The form of exchange arising in the first case, of natural instruments of production, implies a bond between men and products in which men are subject to the rules of nature. In the case of instruments of production belonging to the superstructure, men are subservient to the force in control of the products of their labor. In the former, the division of mental and material labor is not yet evident. In the latter, man submits to capital, that is, the accumulation of previous labor possessed by an intermediary party. This marks the historical division of labor in which man is alienated from the means of production.

Historically, Marx situates this division in the split between country and town insofar as it represents the beginning of the domestication of labor, not only its submission to a ruling class, but, its creation in the image of the ruler: man becomes the production of another. This split leads to the development of the town and, therefore, the necessary introduction of police, taxation, and other means of administering order in the productive force of a now concentrated population.

II. The Leipzig Council –St. Bruno (Criticism of Bruno Bauer)

In a repetitive, sarcastic criticism, Marx develops the argument that Bauer faults Hegel for failing to privilege self-conscious. Like Feuerbach, Bauer's error is to accept expression of the world, the world in abstract terms, as existing beyond and in substitution of the lived world of concrete social relations. Marx contends that such an organization of consciousness marks Bauer's continued reliance on Hegel and merely continues the Hegelian ramification of man as a product of consciousness. Insofar as Bauer remains theologically-centered, he criticizes Feuerbach's atheism because he thinks it deprives man of his true essence; it places the source of man not in God but in man himself. In this way, 'St. Bruno' reduces man to a slave, a species of nature. But, says Marx, Bauer does this without understanding what Feuerbach means by species, world or Hegel's 'Absolute Spirit.' Bauer's mistake is to endow the nature of the individual "with independence instead of regarding it as the product of a definite and surmountable stage of historical development." [16] Marx concludes his criticism of the 'saint' by observing that Bauer "presents Marx as "an amusing comedian."[17]

III. The Leipzig Council – St. Max (Criticism of Max Stirner)

Volume II: Critique of German Socialism according to its Various Prophets


  1. Karl Marx The German Ideology. Prometheus Books, 1998, from a note in a crossed out part, p. 29-30. Henceforth The German Ideology will be cited as German Ideology.
  2. German Ideology, 35
  3. German Ideology, 36
  4. German Ideology, 37
  5. German Ideology, 37
  6. German Ideology, 37
  7. German Ideology, 42
  8. In one of many such examples, Kojève's interpretation of Man in The Phenomenology of Spirit: "The Selbst - that is, Man properly so called or the free Individual, is Time; and Time is History, and only History." Alexandre Kojève Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, Basic Books, 1969
  9. German Ideology, 47
  10. German Ideology, 48
  11. German Ideology, 49
  12. German Ideology, 50
  13. German Ideology, 60
  14. German Ideology, 67
  15. German Ideology, 70
  16. German Ideology, 111
  17. German Ideology, 124