Karl Marx on commonsense, unity, & distinction

Note: The boldfaced passage in the translation below, which is just one passage from a larger article, is highlighted here to single out a general principle transcending the specific issue and argument of this essay, a principle which I maintain goes to the heart of ideology and dialectics. The first article in the series is reproduced in its entirely to explain the significance of grobian literature, not only for its use in this argument, but for its eloquence and relevance today.

Grobianism = (slovenly) boorishness, coarseness, rudeness, crudity.

I begin with this translation as it is the most complete and colorful of the versions presented. The translation of the passage that immediately follows is the most elegant. The secondary sources in which this passage is quoted are also significant.


SOURCE:Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality: A Contribution to German Cultural History Contra Karl Heinzen” (October 1847), Marx Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, pp. 312 ff ; first published in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung, Nos. 86, 87, 90, 92 and 94; October 28 and 31; November 11, 18 and 25, 1847. PDF also available.

Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung, No. 86, October 28, 1847:

Shortly before and during the period of the Reformation there developed amongst the Germans a type of literature whose very name is striking — grobian literature. In our own day we are approaching an era of revolution analogous to that of the sixteenth century. Small wonder that among the Germans grobian literature is emerging once more. Interest in historical development easily overcomes the aesthetic revulsion which this kind of writing provokes even in a person of quite unrefined taste and which it provoked back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Flat, bombastic, bragging, thrasonical, putting on a great show of rude vigour in attack, yet hysterically sensitive to the same quality in others; brandishing the sword with enormous waste of energy, lifting it high in the air only to let it fall down flat; constantly preaching morality and constantly offending against it; sentiment and turpitude most absurdly conjoined; concerned only with the point at issue, yet always missing the point; using with equal arrogance petty-bourgeois scholarly semi-erudition against popular wisdom, and so-called “sound common sense” against science; discharging itself in ungovernable breadth with a certain complacent levity; clothing a philistine message in a plebeian form; wrestling with the literary language to, give it, so to speak, a purely corporeal character; willingly pointing at the writer’s body in the background, which is itching in every fibre to give a few exhibitions of its strength, to display its broad shoulders and publicly to stretch its limbs; proclaiming a healthy mind in a healthy body; unconsciously infected by the sixteenth century’s most abstruse controversies and by its fever of the body; in thrall to dogmatic, narrow thinking and at the same time appealing to petty practice in the face of all real thought; raging against reaction, reacting against progress; incapable of making the opponent seem ridiculous, but ridiculously abusing him through the whole gamut of tones; Solomon and Marcolph, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, a visionary and a philistine in one person; a loutish form of indignation, a form of indignant loutishness; and suspended like an enveloping cloud over it all, the self-satisfied philistine’s consciousness of his own virtue — such was the grobian literature of the sixteenth century. If our memory does not deceive us, the German folk anecdote has set up a lyrical monument to it in the song of Heineke, der starke Knecht. To Herr Heinzen belongs the credit of being one of the re-creators of grobian literature and in this field one of the German swallows heralding the coming springtime of the nations.

Heinzen’s manifesto against the Communists in No. 84 of the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung has been our most immediate instigation in studying that degenerate variety of literature whose historically interesting aspect for Germany we have indicated. We shall describe the literary species represented by Herr Heinzen on the basis of his manifesto, exactly as literary historians characterise the writers of the sixteenth century from the surviving writings of the sixteenth century, for instance the “goose-preacher” [Thomas Murner]

Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung, No. 90, November 11, 1847 [excerpt]:

It is characteristic of the whole grobianism of “sound common sense”, which feeds upon the “fullness of life” and does not stunt its natural faculties with any philosophical or other studies, that where it succeeds in seeing differences, it does not see unity, and that where it sees unity, it does not see differences. If it propounds differentiated determinants, they at once become fossilised in its hands, and it can see only the most reprehensible sophistry when these wooden concepts are knocked together so that they take fire.

It is characteristic of the entire crudeness of ‘common sense’, which takes its rise from ‘the full life’ and does not cripple its natural features by philosophical or other studies, that where it succeeds in seeing a distinction it fails to see a unity, and where it sees a unity it fails to see a distinction. If ‘common sense’ establishes distinct determinations, they immediately petrify surreptitiously, and it is considered the most reprehensible sophistry to rub together these conceptual blocks in such a way that they catch fire.

SOURCE: Quoted in:

Schmidt, Alfred. The Concept of Nature in Marx. London; New York: Verso, 2014. Footnote 110:  Printed in Franz Mehring’s Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels, Vol. 2, Stuttgart, 1920, p. 456.

Ollman, Bertell. The Dance of the Dialectic:  Steps in Marx’s Method (Urbana; Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), p. 77. Source given: Marx & Engels, Werke, vol. 4.

It is characteristic of the entire crudeness of ‘common sense’ that where it succeeds in seeing a distinction [an otherness, JB], it fails to see a unity [an identity, JB], and where it sees unity, it fails to see distinction. If common-sense establishes distinct determinations”, for example, if it distinguishes a faculty of “reason” from a faculty of “perception”, or if it opposes Reason and Sense-Perception, “they immediately petrify surreptitiously”, they become entirely opposed principles, points of departure for different systems of philosophy,  “and it is considered the most reprehensible sophistry to rub together these conceptual blocks in such a way that they catch fire.

SOURCE: Banaji, Jairus. “A Philosophy of Revolutionary Practice: The First Two Theses on Feuerbach” [1977], Historical Materialism, 29 May 2020. The translation is taken from Schmidt (London, 1973, p. 50).

It is typical of bluff common sense that where it manages to see difference, it does not see unity, and where it sees unity, it does not see difference. If perchance it sets up distinguishing qualities, it immediately petrifies them, and sees nothing but sophistry in the notion of rubbing these slabs of ideas against each other until they catch fire.

SOURCE:Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality: A Polemic Against Karl Heinzen,” in Selected Essays by Karl Marx, translated by Henry James Stenning (1926). This translation is an abridgement of the original essay.

The original German essay:

Die moralisierende Kritik und die kritisierende Moral Beitrag zur Deutschen Kulturgeschichte Gegen Karl Heinzen” (Oktober 1847), in Karl Marx - Friedrich Engels - Werke, Band 4 (Berlin/DDR: Dietz Verlag, 1972), S. 331–359.

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