"Men make their own history"—Peter Thompson series in the Guardian on Marx's relevance for our times


The Guardian's Peter Thompson has been writing a multi-part series on Karl Marx. Asking whether Marxism "still has any explanatory power today, in a new age of revolutionary upheaval, or whether we have, in Hegel's and Fukuyama's terms, reached The End of History," Thompson addresses Marx's relationship to religion, socialist thinking, history, power, economics, alienation and modernity. Focusing on how the "process of economic alienation feeds through into religion and ideology and the means by which people manage to cope with being mere playthings of larger forces;" Thompson investigates "how a sense of autonomy, faith and hope are maintained in an apparently constrained, rationalistic and futureless world."

The final article focuses on Marx's relationship to modernity, particularly looking to post-Marxist thought to elucidate theories of the Arab Spring as an example of the eternal desire for human liberation.

Where Alain Badiou talks today of an almost ahistorical "communist hypothesis", Ernst Bloch spoke about an "invariant of direction", a mood of an eternal desire for human liberation that breaks out at certain historical points where the objective conditions allow it. The Arab spring would be an example today, whereas 40 and 20 years ago respectively it was the Prague spring and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In this context, the attraction of going back to Hegel and the early Marx immediately becomes apparent because the idea of the unfolding of human freedom as the main motivating force of history - this time properly understood as something that can only succeed if the objective socio-economic conditions are right - is taken as a given. It is not that the economic ideas of Marx are rejected but there arises an attempt to subordinate economic categories again to human needs and desires and to see parties, states, economics and science as necessary servants of humanity rather than its eternal masters.

One passage from a letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge in 1843 is often quoted in this context:

"Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work."

This implies strongly that the dreams of a better world are a constant, indeed transcendental drive behind our human activities but that the transcendence of prevailing conditions is an active and self-generating process of unmasking the "consciousness which is unintelligible to itself".

Visit the Guardian to read all Peter Thompson's articles on Marx in full.