Academic journal article Capital & Class

Internal Relations' and Marx's 'Materialist Conception of History'

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Internal Relations' and Marx's 'Materialist Conception of History'

Article excerpt


The relations of individuals are 'internal', where the characteristics that define the individual --the individual's 'essence'--are the product of these relations.

In Marx, the human essence is the product of such relations (as is explicitly claimed in the sixth thesis on Feuerbach). This essence, however, is a potential requiring specific historically created internal social relations for its full development and actualisation, the relations that define an ideal human community. These relations and the individuality they both create and are created by are the 'end of an historical developmental process made up of 'stages' that are themselves internally related; that is to say, the essence of each stage is the product of its relations to earlier stages. In addition, the kinds of individuality that characterise each stage are also the outcome of the internal relations that define that stage. For Marx, these kinds are forms of 'estrangement' from the 'true individuality' that characterises the end stage.

This paper provides textual evidence supporting this interpretation of the role of internal relations in Marx's 'materialist conception of history'. What is the significance of this interpretive argument?

To begin with, and in contrast to what is conventionally claimed, Marx does elaborate essential aspects of an ideal society. It is a society that actualises 'freedom' in the sense of activities that objectify 'universal' intellectual, aesthetic and ethical values. This requires individual members with the developed capabilities required for knowing and actualising the universal in this sense--what Marx calls 'universally developed individuals'. Such an ideal society--what Marx means by 'communism'--has never existed.

Universally developed individuals are the product of an historical process made up of internally related stages. This is the basis of a second significant implication of the argument. The coming into being of an ideal society requires that previous historical stages develop the individual capabilities needed to create it. In the case of capitalism, this means, among other things, that it must develop in wage labourers the capabilities required to initiate the kind of 'revolutionary practice' that would further educate them to the degree necessary to enable them to perform this creative act. As will be argued below, this is an essential aspect of the role Marx assigns to 'class' in capitalism. He claimed that the estrangement characteristic of wage labour would bring about the required individual development. This has not happened. Without such development, Marx's idea of an ideal society remains outside the realm of real potentiality.

'Reason is the Sovereign of the World'

The idea of internal relations is only one of the foundational ideas of Marx's historical materialism. Another is the idea, originating ultimately in ancient Greek thought, that 'Reason is the Sovereign of the World' (Hegel 1956: 9). Marx has appropriated this idea in the particular sense given to it by Hegel, namely that reason governs history in the form of the 'dialectic of negativity'--what Hegel called 'the higher dialectic of the conception' (Hegel 1996: 37).

The specific 'negative' characteristics of each historical stage (e.g. in Marx, the particular forms of estrangement characteristic of capitalism) are productive of positive developmental consequences (e.g. as we shall see in Marx's conception of it, of the 'integral development' of wage labourers). The process is aimed at an 'end', namely 'freedom'. This end is implicit in the stages leading up to it (Hegel 1956: 19-20, 40-41).

In the 1844 manuscript, 'Critique of Hegel's philosophy in general', Marx not only identifies his own views with Hegel's general idea that reason governs history in the form of this dialectic, but also attributes to Hegel's Phenomenology the idea that, in human history, this takes the form of estrangement within the labour process. …

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