Marx, Engels and stages of development

This was an essay I wrote for a module entitled ‘Resistance in Theory’, as part of my MA course. I think it articulates Marx’s inversion of the Hegelian dialectic fairly well, reading him through Althusser and then Deleuze. My MA dissertation to come will largely concentrate on the relevance of dialectics, within the framework of poststructuralism.

To what extent is The German Ideology flawed by Marx and Engels’ reliance upon different stages of historical development?

The German Ideology formed the second major publication of the lifelong collaboration between Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The book constitutes an important refutation of Feuerbach’s conception of dialectics and that of the Young Hegelians, although it was never published in either of the authors’ lifetimes. The German Ideology also forms a strong elucidation of the two writers conception of materialist history. This essay shall first show how, in The German Ideology, Marx distanced himself from the German (or Hegelian) notion of dialectic, before developing an argument that undermines the over-simplified popular notion of Marx’s notion of history, based upon this dialectic. As Althusser argues in For Marx (2005), Marx’s dialectic is conceptualised as ‘overdetermined’, implying an interconnected multiplicity of internal relations that provides a considerably more detailed and intricate historical theory than is popularly understood. The essay shall then draw on a short conversation between Althusser and Gilles Deleuze in 1965 drawing similarities between their conception of structuralism and Marx’s detailed overdetermination. It shall then conclude that the terms used by Marx, the presented delineations and simplified mechanics in The German Ideology, are an argumentative phenomenon, not philosophical. Marx and Engels do not rely on the existence of different stages of development – rather they create them as the product of their mode of analysis in a complex model of interdependencies, and use these terms to leverage a political message through literary argument. It will be shown that the question itself cannot be answered, as it relies on precisely the concepts that Marx undermines in The German Ideology and that it is in fact the German philosophers who are flawed in their reliance on historical stages.

Marx began his theory of the development of knowledge with the premise that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (Marx 2000, p. 181). For Marx, ‘consciousness’ (or the production of ideas and conceptions, as well as history) is developed as a separate, but united, process from the material relations that consist the ‘real’. Furthermore, “men are the producers of their conception, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these”, stating that thought and meaning are produced by men – and not existing in an external or a priori form. This is an important reversal of the Hegelian conception of history, which was most clearly presented in a series of lectures given by Hegel at the University of Berlin in the 1820’s (Nisbet 1974). In them, Hegel argues that “world history is the record of the spirit’s efforts to attain knowledge of what it is in itself” (Nisbet 1974, p. 54), or that the subjective individual can abstract a ‘real’ knowledge of the world through the process of reason:

Reason — and this term may here suffice us, without investigating the relation sustained by the Universe to the Divine Being, — is Substance, as well as Infinite Power; its own Infinite Material underlying all the natural and spiritual life which it originates, as also the Infinite Form (Hegel 2011, §12)

This phenomenological approach is, for Marx, only conducive to the construction of “false conceptions” about the way men “are and what they ought to be”, creating ideology on top of ‘real’ knowledges that have not really been shown to exist (Marx 2000, p. 175). The “real” premise is that consciousness is determined by life, and not the other way round (Marx 2000, p. 176), as in Hegel’s false speculation.  In order to solidify Marx’s dialectic claims before moving further on to explore his notion of history, it is worth here exploring Marx’s understanding of ‘real’.

The ‘realness’ of knowledge that Marx develops in his theory of history is real precisely because it has been shown to be produced. For Marx, Hegel does not truly explain the real development of ideas or history due to the speculative reasoning that he uses. Hegel merely states a process by which history can be analysed through a prism of itself and that the spirit can be developed, but does not show the actual relation between the spirit and the material world that creates knowledge. Instead, Hegel employs the agency of “chimeras, the ideas, dogmas” and “imaginary beings” in the continuation of history and the relationship of the real and spirit; he does not, to any satisfaction, explain any mechanics or processes at work in the engagement of these chimeras (Marx 2000, p. 176). Reversing Hegel’s dialectical priority, Marx states that:

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part (Marx 2000, p. 177).

By this, Marx is saying that it is man’s relation to the world around them, in the first order them subsisting, that determines the course of history. The “definite mode of life” can be seen as the stage of development that characterises historical progress rather than, as it is for Hegel, a process of reason needed to identify or abstract knowledge of a progression in a priori determined stages. The significant difference between this and Hegel’s account is the causative link that Marx implies: this ‘definite’ or ‘real’ productive determination creates knowledge through the ‘real’ interaction of man with his surroundings the materials. The ‘real’ production of knowledge and history is key to his theory of history and, Marx’s dialectic reversal to show the ‘real’ determinate relations having been shown, Marx’s theory of the mechanics of historical development shall now be outlined. Following this, Althusser’s reading of overdetermination in Marx shall be developed to show the multiplicity underlying the broad brushstrokes of history as presented in The German Ideology.

In The German Ideology, Marx somewhat hastily sets out over two millennia of human historical development in three pages (Marx 2000, pp. 178-180). Starting with a basic model of tribal ownership, he shows how the mode of property ownership has structurally changed towards the ancient communal, early Roman private, feudal and modern models. Marx’s argument makes the claim that the relationship that man has between his current state of existence, (with respect to his position in the structure of the production process, relationship to other men in terms of class and position et cetera), and the materials of production, (early on manifested in wild animals and hunting, later in the development of capital), determines the characteristics of the various stages of historical development. The development of these stages manifests in the changing nature of the relations to production, and are the results of a changing social structure breaking from the existent economic mode to form a new determinative economic model. For example, Marx argues that the change from tribal to ancient communal ownership is brought about from the increase in the population of the tribal, patriarchal and slave owning families (Marx 2000, p. 178). Such families formed unions, either through conquest or agreement, and, as a result of the necessity to protect private property from the claims of their slaves and the ability to exchange this property with other communal groups, a new form of ownership develops. This new form of ownership corresponds to a new period of history, in that communal ownership constitutes a determinative change in the relationship that the individual has with existence and his materials of production. Marx uses the interesting analogy of the camera obscura to show how the ideology of Hegel is constructed falsely by the assumption that it is the individual spirit that determines the change in historical periods (Marx 2000, p. 180). Here, Marx is saying that ideology (German/Hegelian) comes about because individuals see their effort being applied to their endeavours and see change resulting from this. It is assumed, therefore, that it is the subject that is creating change in historical progress. Instead, for Marx, “in direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven.” In the analysis of historical change, it is material change that determines historical knowledge and “the phantoms formed in the human brain are […] sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premisses” (Marx 2000, p. 180). This is to say that individuals will develop concepts of identity and historical progress of their individual lives as a materialist process, but that the analysis if history must be removed from the subjective lest it fall foul of developing on the back of the chimera of ideology.

It has been shown so far how Marx has reversed the Hegelian model of the dialectics from the speculative and subjective to the materialist and objective. Furthermore, this material dialectic has a deterministic role to play in the progression of historical chapters, whose analysis and distinction is only as a result of societal constructs resulting from material changes. There is however, as mentioned above, a large amount of detail lacking in Marx’s explanation of historical change. His sweeping statements regarding the changing nature of epochs and their determining factors are too broad to read as a full explanation of history. What then is the nature of his explanation of around two thousand years of historical change? For what reason has he included such broad brush strokes of historical explanation in a book predominantly targeted at critiquing German philosophy? In order to fully answer this, it is necessary to take a detour through the combined work of Althusser and Deleuze. The writing of Althusser shall show that Marx’s materialist theory of historical change is not the simple reduction of human activity into neat historical groupings, but is in fact a complex and interrelated theory of multiplicity. Following this, it will be shown that, for Deleuze, the structure of history that Marx elucidates throughout The German Ideology and his later works is changeable and mutable, rather than closed off and ‘necessary,’ as Hegel would proclaim.

Althusser argues that a simple and general contradiction between the relations and forces of production, as can be found in The German Ideology, would not be sufficient to define a situation in which “the revolution is the task for the day” (Althusser 2005, p. 99). In order to achieve what he calls a “rupture”, Althusser argues that there must be a complex accumulation of “circumstances” and “currents” which “fuse‘ into a ruptural unity” to produce an event of historical change (Althusser 2005, p. 99, original emphasis). It is not the case that the proletarians and peasant classes were necessarily united in a force to fight against the bourgeois classes in a solid, unitary agent of history. Rather, these classes threw themselves together and formed a “general assault on the existing regime” (Althusser 2005, p. 99). What is novel in Althusser’s argument is that the determinant conditions that constitute the ruptural unity are possible, even in the conditions of opposition against each other, and even against the rupture itself. Some of the contradictions are “radically heterogenous – of different origins, different sense, different levels and points of application – but which nevertheless ‘merge’ into a ruptural unity” (Althusser 2005, p. 100, original emphasis) and this radically heterogenous model of determining factors is what Althusser terms the ‘overdetermination’ of a situation. It is this overdetermination that constitutes an image of a plurality of different and potentially competing forces that determinately produce a change of history. These conditions are what they are and determine exactly what they determine in both form and nature.

In order to explain what seems to be a truism, that determinates will determine an outcome, Althusser compares the Marxist and Hegelian dialectics. Althusser shows that the latter, whilst becoming richer the further down the dialectic one progresses, there is never an “effective overdetermination“. Instead, Hegel’s dialectic only develops a complex insight into the “internalization” of its own essence, without ever fully realising the determinant conditions of its existence (Althusser 2005, p. 101, original emphasis). The Hegelian subject merely experiences the essence of history “through all the echoes of the essence it has previously been”, building layers of false ideology on top of others as it analyses history through the chimeras of its own process of reason, rather than as a product of real determinative interrelations. There is no productive or creative moment in Hegel, as the spirit is simply looking back on its own essence, analysing history through its own never-changing perspective. For Althusser, Marx’s structure of historical materialism produces its results in the superstructure of society (such as social relations, division of labour and historical progress), and its results are nothing more or less than what we perceive. This is because it is the determinate and potentially contradicting forces that unite to form a creative ruptural unity which creates the resultant form in history (Althusser 2005, p. 100). The relations of production in their various forms are “one of the terms of the contradiction [that leads to determinant change,] but at the same time its conditions of existence” (Althusser 2005, p. 100, original emphasis). Because the relations of production form both part of the overdeterminate forms of change, and also its conditions of existence, nothing else but the product of their relations can be produced. This may appear as a truism, but the distinction with the Heglian model is important. For Marx, there is no essential end result of historical progress to reach anything that is defined by anything other than the causal factors – the perceived change in history is the result of overdetermination and nothing else. To give an example, the use of the ‘civil society’ in The German Ideology is, for Althusser, not the re-utilisation of a concept, but rather used “as an allusion to the past, to denote the site of his discoveries” (Althusser 2005, p. 109). The use of the site ‘civil society’ delineates the ground for an excavation, an archaeology, in order to uncover the determinate conditions and relations of production of a particular and peculiar period of time.

Althusser has shown that relations of production and the constitutive elements of historical periods of The German Ideology are much more complex than appear in the initial reading of the text. Indeed there are a number of determinate links within any historical epoch that form together and constitute a ‘ruptural unity’ which then materially determines historical change. Furthermore, these constituent parts may not agree with each other, form antagonistic conflicts and act at different times and levels from each other but, nevertheless, it is these and no other elements that come to cause a historical movement. The contradictions form the contours and identity of the dialectic shift, as well as the constitutive elements. It may be indeed that contradictions form together that then do not form ruptural unities and examples of this can be seen in the “failure of the 1849 Revolution in Germany [and] the failure in Paris of 1871”, however this does not disprove the theory. Rather, it is the critical mass of a multiplicity of contradictions that brings about structural change as a rupture, with these two examples showing where there was not a critical ruptural mass needed to overcome existent structural integrity (Althusser 2005, p. 104). It is not necessarily the case that historical and social forms are only analysable from a point of rupture – the specified point of analysis determines the internal contradictions that have determined the pathway to that point. This is more explicitly developed by Deleuze, who distinguishes between the internal structure of historical passage as consisting of a differenciation between its parts, and its external delimitations being expressed through the differentiation of it in relation to the other.

Before embarking on an elucidation of Deleuze’s theory, it should be highlighted that there has so far been an “astonishing silence” with regard to Deleuze’s relationship with Althusser (Stolze 1998, p. 52). Stolze reports that out of seventeen hundred pages of Deleuzian anthologies, there are but two references to ‘Louis Althusser’, despite the apparently “favourable disposition” that Althusser showed to Deleuze’s early works (Stolze 1998, pp. 51-2). The only pieces of communication between the two thinkers are two lectures given by Deleuze in 1967 and 1968 and a brief correspondence where Deleuze asks for, and Althusser gives, notes on the lectures (Stolz 1998, p. 54). The silent lack of study of the two authors is unfortunate and is deserving of greater investigation, with Stolze hinting that the reasons could be either political animosity or personal distancing being targeted at Althusser as a result of him murdering his wife. During the brief correspondence however, Deleuze uses Althusser’s comments to add an important detail to his concept of ‘what a structuralist is’ and its relationship to Marx that shall now be developed.

Deleuze specifies two features of distinction in Althusser’s interpretation of structuralism and the Marxist dialectic, those of ‘differentiation’ and ‘differenciation’. These are both features of distinction in that, through a process of pointing out difference in separate ways, identify constitutive elements in Marx’s dialectic. The differentiation (with a ‘t‘) is used to describe the external boundaries and contours of a social form that separates the structure from another social form or historical moment (Stolze 1998, pp. 58-9). For Deleuze, differentiation defines social form against the ‘other’ and it is this that, as mentioned above, is not immutable and indeed is specifiable as to “what is being specified” during the “process of actualisation” (a process that shall be developed shortly) (Stolze 1998, p. 59). Differenciation occurs when “it is obvious that concrete human beings come to occupy the places and effectuate the elements of the structure”, and they have taken “on the role that the structural place assigns to them (for example the ‘capitalist’)” (Deleuze in Stolze 1998, pp. 58-9). By this, Deleuze means that the structure takes on the subjective role of assigning the elements of itself roles within its functioning, not in the ‘real’ sense that was developed in direct relation to Marx above, but in the sense of the knowledge field of structure. Individuals are still acting in a ‘real’ way with ‘real’ relations of production but, when it comes to the analysis of history and its identity of epochs and stages, it is the external contours of the structure that determine the units of agency within itself. For Deleuze, appealing to Althusser’s epistemological workings in Reading Capital (1970), “we should say of structure […] that it is still undifferenciated, although it is entirely and completely differentiated” (Deleuze in Stolze 1998, p. 59). The external form of the social unity (itself consisting of the complex multiplicity that Althusser has been shown to develop above) is defined from the outside, but appears so far unengendered “according to the illusion of a false [Hegelian] dialectic” (Stolze 1998, p. 58). Something must occur in order for the internal multiplicity of constituent determinations to become knowable.

Deleuze states that in order for the internal elements of the structure to be knowable, there must be a “process of actualization” that “always implies an internal temporality.” It is through the actualization of history, the analysing of progress through history, that the internal characteristics, the differenciations of social forms and the developments of history, become knowable (Stolze 1998, p. 59). Althusser showed that the relations of production constituted both the conditions and the outside form of a historical period or social form. Deleuze here develops Althusser’s argument showing that, whilst the externality of the historical form can be differentiated by fixing temporal specificity and identity to a social form, then internal determinative form can only be perceived during the temporal process of actualization. In his lecture, Deleuze quotes Althusser stating that each peculiar history “is punctuated with peculiar rhythms and can only be known on condition that we have defined the concept of the specificity of its historical temporality and its punctuations (continuous development, revolutions, breaks, etc)” (Althusser 1970, pp. 99-100). It is the independent temporal movement of each contradiction within the differentiated social form, each determinant in the rupture, that identifies the internal differenciation within the structure. Deleuze here is critiquing the Hegelian dialectical tool of reason and the subjective spirit as the determinate causes of history. There is no “homogenous continuity” within history, rather a multiplicity of potentially contradicting forces that make themselves known through the passage of time (Deleuze in Stolze 1998, p. 60). Furthermore, Deleuze formalises the differen(c/t)iation inherent to the internal and external form of the structure and hints at how, given an ascribed temporal fixity to a social form, it is possible to perceive the internal conditions of the structure over time.

It is here then that the questions asked of this essay can begin to be answered. The questions have been twofold: firstly, ‘is The German Ideology flawed by a reliance on different stages of history?’ and, secondly, ‘why is Marx’s description of historical change so brief?’ The second questions shall be addressed first, though its answer is connected to that of the first question. Given that Marx’s description of historical progress in The German Ideology is so brief, it can be safely assumed that Marx did not entail this portrayal to be historical in nature. Instead, Marx seems to have added the three pages in order to establish the fundamentals of his critique of Hegelian dialectics. The pages, whilst sketchily brief and lacking in historical depth, do constitute a rough overview of a correct inversion of Hegel’s dialectic. Marx’s description of the transition from tribal to ancient communal ownership contains no images of ‘reason’ or latent phenomenological progression, there is no causative factors external to the material forces at work in determining the analysis of history. As such, there is a clear, though unelaborated, description of precisely what Althusser and Deleuze agree Marx to show more thoroughly in his later work. Marx uses the three pages, not as historical description, but as a utilitarian tool of argument. This insight, coupled with the theoretical interpretations of Althusser and Deleuze, also helps to see why The German Ideology does not in fact suffer from a reliance on stages of history. A reliance on a series of stages of history would imply that there is ontological fixity in the nature of the stages themselves. History would no longer have to be explained in a creative fashion as a multiplicity of interrelating and potentially antagonistic forces, but the nature of a number of situations or social forms that have already been made known to the world would have to be ‘understood’ or ‘interpreted’. Marx, as a master of suspicion, rejects the notion of this subjective understanding of definite stages of history. He has, when read through Althusser and Deleuze, shown how knowledge of human activity is a creative process, rather than merely a static, uncovering of what might already exist. Marx has been shown to fix significance to certain social forms and describes only these social forms as the products of determinate results of material relations. These social forms and structures are differentiated from other structures by Marx, not as ‘real’ forms in the sense that man ‘really’ produces his means of subsistence in the field, but in the sense that knowledge is created by the materialist determinations developed above by Althusser. The internal characteristics are then, albeit briefly in The German Ideology, (but more thoroughly in his later works,) developed as the external boundaries and constitutive elements of precisely and only that which has been specified by Marx. This is to say that Marx does not rely on the different stages of history, as there are no a priori stages. Instead, as has been shown by Delueze’s distinction between differen(c/t)iation, he delineates a structure in history and constitutes the internal elements of it as the forms materialistic determinate parts. The flaw in The German Ideology rests solely on the heads of the German philosophers who, due to their idealogical philosophy of speculation, cannot create a new knowledge of historical progress, only re-present themselves the ghosts of their imaginary beings.


Althusser, L., For Marx, (Verso, London, 2005)

Althusser, L., and Balibar, E., Reading Capital, (NLB, Paris, 1970, 2nd edition)

Hegel, F., Hegel’s Philosophy of History – hosted at – accessed on 7.12.11

Marx, K.,and Engels, F., ‘Extracts from The German Ideology’ in McLellan, D. (ed), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (vol. 2), (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000)

Nisbet, H.B. (trans.), Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1974)

Stolze, T., ‘Deleuze and Althusser: Flirting with Structuralism’ in “Rethinking Marxism”, (Vol. 10, Issue 3, 1998), pp. 53-61

~ by Chris Henry on March 19, 2012.

3 Responses to “Marx, Engels and stages of development”

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