Thomas Docherty on the German Ideology of Marx and Engels – ‘Modernity and the Language of Real Life’

Thomas Docherty
Thomas Docherty

On 28 April 2008, Professor Thomas Docherty came to ECLA to deliver a penetrating lecture on the German Ideology. Focusing on the elements of Marxist thought that was to have a determining influence on critical theory in the twentieth century, Docherty explained Marx’s views on theory, language and the materialist method.

In the German Ideology, Marx and Engels reacted to the Young Hegelians, a group of students and young professors who believed that Hegel misconceived the Prussian State as the end-point of his dialectical progress. For the Young Hegelians the actual state was not fulfilling the role assigned to it by Hegel’s ideas. They theorized how to reform the actual state, so as to continue Hegel’s dialectical movement to its proper conclusion. Marx and Engels criticized the Young Hegelians for disputing over mere phrases, failing to offer a true critique of Hegelian philosophy and remaining fully within its system. Implicitly, Marx and Engels also attacked Hegelian philosophy itself for being ‘totalitarian’ (as Baudrillard would later suggest) by reserving a place for criticism within philosophy, whereby the philosophical system appropriates to itself all criticism. Therefore, Marx and Engels argued, one cannot criticize the Hegelian philosophy with words but only with action and a language rooted in material reality, a ‘language of real life’. To change the world, one cannot use mere words, Marx and Engels contended.

Docherty expounded the idea of a ‘language of real life’, using it to explain central Marxist themes, such as materialism and alienation. Marx conceives of the human being as a pivot between past and future. What we are at a given moment is fully determined by the material conditions in which we find ourselves; nevertheless we are still free in this position to ‘open up a new, unpredictable future’. Man is historical insofar as he changes the course of the future. Awareness of the material conditions that determine a particular class and the action that befits it are crucial in this change of the future. Class struggle is, for Marx, the mode of history.

Marx stresses the reality of physical, living beings, actual humans with beating hearts. The task is to find the language of this real life instead of the empty phrases of philosophy and ideologies. These empty phrases are the creations of the ruling class who, forgetting that their ideas come from their particular material conditions, hold them to be true for everyone. They thereby justify their position as the ruling class. Thus, through its universalization, a particular ideology comes to be a distorted image of reality, especially wrong with regard to the situation of the proletariat. Words and ideas are taken for real, while actually it is only material things and living humans that are real. Here Docherty drew an interesting parallel between Marx’s account of mistaking words for the real things that they describe and the later structuralist division of signifier and signified. The Marxist conception of a ‘language of real life’, Docherty proposed, can be seen as a precursor to the poststructuralist realization of the central role of specific material context in relationships of signification.

Thomas Docherty is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Warwick University. A specialist in the philosophy of literary criticism, his books include a study of the poetry of John Donne (John Donne Undone, 1987), a genealogy of the category of ‘authority’ in modernity (On Modern Authority, 1983), and an investigation of the intellectual consequences of the theoretical turn in literary studies (After Theory, 1990). His recent works (Aesthetic Democracy, 2006; The English Question, 2008) explore the inherited burdens and the future potential of contemporary political, educational and literary institutions.

by Martin Lipman (’08, Netherlands)

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