Book Review: The Holy Family

This work (Lawrence & Wishart, 7/6), of which Marx wrote much the greater part, polemicises against the prominent left Hegelians, the brothers Bauer—Bruno, Edgar and Egbert—plus two shadowy acolytes, Zychlinsky, who wrote under the pen name of Szeliga, and Ruchardt, the publisher of the General Gazette for Literature, the organ in which the Bauers wrote their views and in one issue of which appeared an attack on Man. It was these, along with Casper Schmidt, alias Max Stirner, whom Man satirically named “the Holy Family.” The name was not unjustified, for under the high sounding revolutionary phraseology of the Bauers lay the kernel of religious mysticism.

The One-sidedness of Hegel
After Hegel died dialectical nemesis swiftly followed. His philosophy of unity split into two schools of “right” and “left” Hegelians, and, like Humpty Dumpty, was never put together again. The Bauers posed as he arch-revolutionaries of the Hegelian “Left.” What they did in effect was to develop even more one-sidedly the one-sidedness of Hegel. Hegel had propounded the notion that change was the form in which an unchanging absolute or God was made manifest. In the process, said Hegel, of our acquiring ever greater aspects of truth leading to ultimate truth, an active principle of consciousness was involved in this knowing process. The Bauers threw out God and the whole choir and furniture of heaven. They did, however, seize upon this creative and active element of the mind and constructed it into a first principle.

History for the Bauers became the history of ideas, themselves aspects of a self-acting, self-revealing Truth. From this Truth there burgeoned forth absolute ethical categories—Justice, Virtue, Freedom, etc. The Bauers set up these metaphysical entities in place of Hegel’s God and called upon people to worship them.

The Material World an Illusion
Most people, said Bruno Bauer, and especially the working class, thought that their material needs and interests were the real stuff of life. But this was an illusion due to the uncritical nature of their thinking, and hence defective social vision. The essence of Reality, he said, was the self-acting, self-creating mind, with its projection of absolute ethical values. Matter was merely an alienated and perverted form of consciousness. On other occasions he referred to matter as the unconscious part of consciousness. According to Bruno Bauer, the material world was an illusion, only abstractions like Truth, Justice, Harmony, Freedom, and so on were real. On such an assumption abstractions were more real than human beings. The real mystery of life, said Bauer, was that people had mistaken the illusion for reality, and vice versa. Only the chosen few who had the faculty of critical thinking, “the critical critics,” like the Bauers, could unveil the mystery.

Mystical Apples
Marx, in dealing with what he called the secret of Hegelian speculation, in chapter five of The Holy Family, comments on this view bitingly and incisively. If, he says, abstractions are the ultimate reality, then apples, pears and almonds are but forms of the reality we call fruit. Thus apples, pears, almonds are not, as is commonly believed, real things, they are merely the modes of expression of the essence—fruit. It is this essence which is the reality, and apples, pears and almonds are their mystical representation. So apples, pears and almonds become dissolved into the concept—fruit, which becomes the real substance of apples, pears and almonds, and these in turn become the incarnations of mystery. In this way social relations of production, institutions, constitutions, civilization, etc., are resolved into the category of mystery. And so, says Marx, “mystery is thus raised to the Hegelian level of an independent subject which incarnates itself into situations and persons.”

Changing Men’s Hearts
Of what did the great revolution of the Bauers consist? The answer is, precious little. Stripped of its Hegelian fripperies, it announced that the millennium could only be brought in if the hearts of men were purified. Social evils could not be abolished by tampering with political and social mechanisms. To appeal to men’s material interests was to repeat the mistakes of the past. In short, the revolution was to be a spiritual one. Governments, laws; in fact any form of organized tyranny, Bruno Bauer declared, would not be swept away by any action, political or otherwise, it could only be transcended by higher; i.e., critical thinking. In order to struggle to be free one had to be free from struggle in any practical or empirical sense.

Bauer sought to trump his opponents’ aces by asserting that men were merely transient and historical products. History generated its own logic outside of men’s wishes. The real virtue of the critical spirit was its recognition of this. Its task was to teach men not to resist evil, but endure it, and by enduring overcome it. Such a theory of social quietism, said Marx, by saying no action should be taken against existing society, so far from opposing it, works on its behalf.

No Place for the Working Class
True, the Bauers in proclaiming their heaven on earth, kicked up a hell of a row about it, and spoke of their bloodless categories in blood-curdling language, but even the censor eventually realised that the world of the Bauers was not strictly within their province, but belonged to the realm of pure thought.

The Bauers, consistent with their metaphysics, identified mind with good and matter with evil. Translating this into social affairs, they looked upon the working class, or, as they termed them, “the mass,” as being synonymous with matter and hence the source of social evil. They were then, according to the Bauers, the real enemy of progress. Believing that the motor of history was great ideas; i.e., the products of critical thinking, they also believed great men were the incarnation or personification of them. Great ideas had failed in the past because great men had sought the support of the uncritical mass. As a result these great ideas had often come to a miserable, even tragic end.

Salvation through “Great Men”
Yet if evil was to be overcome, the mass must be saved in spite of themselves. And, believing as the Bauers did, that the “law of progress” worked through personal agencies, then the instruments for the salvation of the mass could only be great men. In England Carlyle was enunciating a somewhat similar doctrine. The heroes of the Bauers, unlike those of Carlyle, were not to be benevolent despots or enlightened dictators, but high-minded philanthropists who, by their ennobling work, would set an example to the mass and lead them into an appreciation and even grateful acceptance of absolute ethical values. Such an order of sentimental philanthropy found its literary expression in the novels of Charles Dickens and Eugene Sue.

The Father of Sherlock Holmes
The reader of the Holy Family, unaware of its theoretical and controversial background, might be astonished to find almost half of the book devoted to Eugene Sue’s novel, The Mysteries of Paris. Nobody, not even Dickens, made so sensational an attack on social abuses, via fiction, as did Eugene Sue. The novel is about a German prince who, with the aid of a reformed pugilistic blackguard, fights and eventually triumphs over the underworld of crime, backed by wealthy men as well as correcting the abuses of wealth and power en route. With its compound of sentimental ideals and unrestrained violence, via a series of bloody and maudlin intrigue, it served as the prototype of Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake, Bulldog Drummond, and the Saint.

Eugene Sue applied one of the accepted canons of bourgeois morality by expounding how good overcomes evil by playing its own dirty game even dirtier and showing that good can be more violent and evil than evil itself. Moreover, in such a morality so satisfying is the reward of virtue in making vice expiate its crimes by killings, solitary confinement, beatings up, and the long purgatory of penitence, that it is almost raised to a hedonistic principle. The novel also seeks to show how the thrills of adventure can find their outlet in slumming, especially in disguise. Then there is charity, which offers the rich organised and humane entertainment, where at balls they dance for the poor and at banquets eat for the poor and demonstrate that they will do everything for the poor—apart from abolishing poverty. Eugene Sue, like other contemporary social novelists, took poverty and exploitation to be the social norm. The lower orders being a dependent, servile and, à la Bruno Bauer, an uncritical mass were, as such, incapable of ethical judgments; what they could do was to acquire the virtues of thrift, frugality and modesty out of gratitude to the munificence of the lords and ladies bountiful.

The Hero’s Motives
Ironically enough, the “critical critics,” the Bauers, saw in Sue’s sensational thriller the literary representative of critical consciousness personified in the hero—the prince—and Szeliga wrote a long philosophical dissertation on it. If the essence of the Bauers’ philosophy of humanitarianism was really a philosophy of dehumanisation by seeing people as the mere incarnation of abstract ethical categories, then Sue’s novel was in some respects a concrete exemplification of it. But Sue, of course, showed very clearly that his hero was actuated by earthly motives like hate and revenge and not pure disinterestedness. Marx takes the opportunity of attacking in an exuberant and forceful fashion both the interpretation of Szelega and the social doctrine implied in the novel, and seems to have found it highly congenial. Marx in dealing with the discrepancies between the prince’s flaming ideals and his actual conduct, reveals his remarkable insight into the disguised motivation of social behaviour which he was later to systemise into his account of what constituted ideologies.

Marx also defends Proudhon against the gross misinterpretation of his doctrine by the Bauers, and shows that Proudhon was the first to effectively challenge the eternal verities of Political Economy—Private Property. Marx also adumbrates economic views which were later to take shape in his theory of value.

Ideas and History
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is when Marx takes issue with Bauer on the role of ideas in history. Bruno Bauer, as has been seen, gave to historical ideas an absolute significance, and made them the substance of reality. History for him was the history of ideas. Of course, ideas are always part of history, but they are always related to specific situations. They are not stored up ghostly categories awaiting the appointed hour to be fused with history by some mysterious dialectical process, in order to make their bow on the human stage. The relevant question is how do ideas make history? Why are some ideas effective and others not? Why do some live and others die? Why are some ideas efficient instruments for social change and others fade into lost ideals and forgotten causes?

Capitalist Interests and the French Revolution
Marx’s answer was that only those social ideas which are embodied in class interests can be historically effective, and the needs and interests of a class must be rooted in the concrete conditions and powers if they are to be actualised. Marx proceeds to show why, in the French Revolution, Robespierre and his party went down to destruction because they confused the needs’and interests of the French bourgeoisie with the ideals of the ancient Athenian democracy. He also answers Bauer that some of the ideas put forth extended beyond the range of bourgeois interests and failed precisely for that reason and not because the uncritical mass could not embrace them. The French Revolution, in spite of its ideals, could not embrace the whole community because the interests of one part of it excluded the interests of the other. Marx also shows the part played by powerful sections of the bourgeoisie in encompassing the downfall of Napoleon.

Ideas and Social Change
It is true that social classes have many interests: religious, vocational, legal, economic, etc. But if we ask what interests are crucial to effective social change, then the answer is those which develop out of the structure of the mode of production. That is why Marx made the starting point of his historical investigation the varying character of men’s needs. From these needs arise the division of labour and with it the rise of specialised groups evolving into social classes. And with these classes goes the systemization of ideas and attitudes which become class ideologies. Marx thus corrected Bruno Bauer’s confusion on interests, ideas and history.

The Holy Family is not the playful exuberance of the youthful Marx, but a work in which we find his basic doctrines taking shape. His language was still the language of Feurbach, and be uses the word human where later he was to use the term class. The Holy Family is a milestone in Marx’s approach to Marxism.

For even Marx was not born a Marxist.

E. W.

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