On The Fiftieth Anniversary of Feuerbach’s Death

Georg Lukács

What this great thinker has meant to the genesis of historical materialism does not need to be discussed here. Not only Engels's splendidly concise little book presents this contribution sharply and tersely; anyone who has carefully studied the posthumous Marx-Engels writings in Mehring's edition, along with Meyer's researches into Engels, must know that the impetus which Feuerbach gave to the thinking of the young Marx and Engels was a decisive one. To be sure, a whole series of critical reservations soon followed this initial enthusiasm. Engels expresses this in several passages in his book (and Marx more sharply in his correspondence). The crucial objection is that Feuerbach did not penetrate to real, historical materialism; he only cast Hegelian dialectics aside and did not really surmount them; he continued to adhere in his overall outlook to the standpoint of bourgeois society

The core of Feuerbach's method and his greatest discovery is that he places man at the centre of scientific investigation of the world. The young Marx took up this methodical viewpoint with enthusiasm. ‘To be radical’, he states, ‘is to take the matter by the roots. But for man the root is man himself.’ Once this standpoint is reached, the mythological constructions surrounding and enveloping man's consciousness, presenting him with a clear insight into his situation and hence the prerequisite for changing it, may be elucidated and comprehended as products of man himself. As Marx emphasised later with reference to Vico, man can grasp that he himself has made human history, with all its life-forms.

Thus Feuerbach was critical, in the highest and best meaning of the word, towards one of the most important ideological constructions, namely religion. He correctly analysed the mythology for which Hegel used the term 'spirit' (Geist). But he remained a utopian in that he was unable to adopt a critical attitude to his own method: he treated the concept of 'man' just as uncritically, undialectically and metaphysically as a parson is wont to treat the concept of God or religion. To speak in terms of method: Feuerbach assumed that man, the starting-point of his method, really exists in the true sense of the word. He failed to take dialectically the concept of man itself, to perceive that man is something that only comes into being in the course of historical development and therefore—from the perspective of a historical critique—both exists and does not exist. Already in his so-called Feuerbach period, Marx gave a dialectical turn to Feuerbach. He considers the radical human yardstick by which man's life in society must be assessed, from which it becomes clear that man does not and cannot exist in contemporary society. Feuerbach was never capable of this step. For him, man just as he is constitutes a reality in need of no further analysis, no critical examination. And he only examines the relationship between this yardstick of reality he has located and Nature, religion and so on. But as a result of this uncritical attitude the entire social being of man, despite occasional statements to the contrary, shifts altogether to the realm of Nature: exactly as in classical economics, it is converted into an absolute natural limitation of human existence. Man thereby becomes the isolated, abstract individual of bourgeois society. Feuerbach quite logically defines his chief virtue as love, as the supreme relationship between individuals who are isolated and held fast in that isolation. But he cannot comprehend how this love is able to assert itself in real social existence and where men find the means of realising this ideal of living. Engels very rightly notes that Feuerbach simply presupposes ‘that every man is automatically given the means and objects of satisfaction’. A new, emotional utopia arises as the solution to the contradictions of human existence.

Today, these effects of Feuerbach's theories have still received very little examination. How, for instance, his stress on man's methodological precedence over God leads to Stirner's anarchistic individualism and to the atheism of Nietzsche. How, on the other hand the combination of this relationship of man to God with the role of love finds a magnificent resurrection in Dostoyevsky, etc. Precisely that impetus which Feuerbach gave to the birth of revolutionary thought has rendered him suspect in the eyes of professional scholars. His influence, one of the most important in the history of bourgeois culture (besides the names already mentioned, let us recall such diverse figures as Gottfried Keller and Kierkegaard), has remained an anonymous influence. Bourgeois learning has grown incapable of grasping even the development of its own culture.

But the recognition that Feuerbach's direct continuation lies in this direction determines our present-day stance towards him. For us, Feuerbach's doctrine is a mere historical fact. Though important as an inspiration, for Marx and Engels, it lost its importance the moment that the forward-looking part of it entered into historical materialism. As regards the struggle to realise his ideal, man as the universal yardstick, Feuerbach cannot give us any path to follow precisely because he anticipates its realisation in a utopian spirit. By the very same token, because his utopian position turns 'man' into an abstraction—the uncritically generalised man of bourgeois society, the completion of this process, the conclusion of the 'pre-history of mankind' cannot hark back to Feuerbach. He remains an episode, albeit a very important one, in the development of historical materialism; an unrecognised, subterranean, spiritual force in bourgeois culture. He typifies the great forerunners whose influence outstrips their work and consigns the work itself to oblivion.

SOURCE: Lukács, Georg. “On The Fiftieth Anniversary of Feuerbach’s Death,” in Reviews and Articles from Die rote Fahne, translated by Peter Palmer (London: The Merlin Press, 1983), pp. 56-58.

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