Do Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach Still Hold Validity?

Ludwig von Feuerbach, the Heidelberg-trained theorist, published his Das Wesen des Christentums in 1841. Feuerbach’s provocative thesis was that religious beliefs (by which, of course, he meant Christian religious beliefs) were alienated abstractions which, when relieved of their abstract, alienated form, could quickly be recognized as descriptions not of divine being, but of human being. So revolutionary was Feuerbach’s thesis that it was immediately adopted by nearly every radical who was eager to advance “beyond religion” to its worldly “essence.” And, truth be told, many today who consider themselves to have advanced “beyond religion” still embrace and in the face of religious obstinacy still recite one or another version of Feuerbach’s creed. Contemporary Sociology of Religion, in fact, often unwittingly promises little more than a warmed-over version of Feuerbach’s method.

Barely four years later, however, in 1845, a still young Karl Marx would have nothing of it. In his Thesen über Feuerbach, Marx therefore criticized Feuerbach for failing to recognize how even the restored, humanized, and worldly version of religion that he believed he had recovered was itself still the product of alienated human action. It therefore followed, thought Marx, that even a demystified, immanent, and worldly version of religion, since it was still structured by the actions of alienated human beings, could tell us little about the essence of human being as such.

And, in this, Marx’s critique of Feuerbach casts an unsettling shadow over much that still passes today, particularly on the Left, for criticism of religion. For, unlike “religious” atheists, who, much like their theistic counterparts, are sticklers for “objectivity,” Marx saw in the question of “objective truth” no more than the atheistic counterpart to the theistic preoccupation with objectivity.

The question whether objective truth [gegenständliche Wahrheit] can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality [Wirklichkeit oder Nichtwirklichkeit] of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

And, when we move from the question of practice to the question of truth, do we not also expose ourselves to the same criticism? “Truth” is what we make. Or, rather, “truth” is what is in fact made whenever we act. In other words, rather than raising the question of the supposed “objectivity” of truth, we should instead begin by acknowledging the “objectivity” of each “truth,” but then proceed to critically interrogate the practices that gave rise to this specific “truth.”

Since, however, this methodology can be meaningfully applied to every “objective truth,” not excluding this methodology itself, its aim cannot be to identify a place or position “outside” of and therefore “immune to” practice, but can only be to explore the “this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit]” of all thinking, its necessarily practical composition.

To put the matter bluntly, Marx’s aim is not to strip away the layers of mystification so that he can lay bare that essence of a human being that is not structured by practice—and therefore could not possibly be an “essence” in the first place—but rather his aim is to expose the futility of this aim, to show how this aim—the aim of identifying the human essence—is itself the creation and product of alienated human being.

Thus Thesis No. VI:

Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.

In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:

  1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.
  2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.

From this vantage-point it must be clear that Marx is less calling for action than he is calling attention to the already practical and active character of social being, which is not the realization of something new, but the recognition of something that has always already been—namely, the immanent, non-transcendental, practical, and therefore contingent and social composition of human being.

The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity (X).

What is new, therefore, is grasping the fact that we actively compose our own social being and therefore are fully capable of practically transforming our social being. We always already do actively choose our being. This being so, we are obligated to recognize the immanent and therefore practical character of our own critique. The supposedly “ideal” human being we seek to practically create is never itself anything other than an “ideal” already structured by practice.

And for this reason alone it is open to criticism. But not as though some other, preferable, “ideal” is not structured by practice. We must take care not to misinterpret Marx’s closing line: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

We always already do, in fact, change the world. And it is always already our practices that give rise to this change. But, only rarely is this “the point” or “object” of our action. Only rarely do we reflect critically on our actions with this in mind. But, it is always this change to which our actions give rise.

This, in fact, is the only possible interpretation of the German: “Es kömmt drauf an, sie zu verändern.”

So, not only do Marx’s Thesen remain valid. It is doubtful that any social scientist would care to say otherwise.