Marx on Kant



Kant and Fichte soar to heavens blue
Seeking for some distant land,
I but seek to grasp profound and true
That which—in the street I find.

— Karl Marx, Book of Verse, Epigrams, 1837



There is a similar relation between the dogmatists and the Kantians in their attitude to philosophy, although both sides appear degenerate and deprived of the freshness of ancient philosophy. The former renounce knowledge out of godliness, that is, they believe with the Epicureans that the divine in man is ignorance, that this divine, which is laziness, is disturbed by understanding. The Kantians, on the contrary, are as it were the appointed priests of ignorance, their daily business is to tell their beads over their own powerlessness and the power of things. The Epicureans are more consistent: if ignorance is inherent in the spirit, then knowledge is no enhancement of the spiritual nature, but something indifferent to the spirit, and for an ignorant man the divine is not the motion of knowledge, but laziness) [. . .]

*   *   *   *   *

Subjectivity is manifested in its immediate bearer [Socrates] as his life and his practical activity, as a form by which he leads single individuals out of the determinations of substantiality to determination in themselves; apart from this practical activity, his philosophy has no other content than the abstract determination of the good. His philosophy is his transference from substantially existing notions, differences, etc., to determination-in-self, which, however, has no other content than to be the vessel of this dissolving reflection; his philosophy is therefore essentially his own wisdom, his own goodness; in relation to the world the only fulfilment of his teaching on the good is a quite different subjectivity from that of Kant when he establishes his categorical imperative. For Kant it is of no account what attitude he, as an empirical subject, adopts towards this imperative.

SOURCE: Marx, Karl. Second Notebook on Epicurean Philosophy (1839), in MECW, vol. 1.


The proofs of the existence of God are either mere hollow tautologies. Take for instance the ontological proof. This only means:

"that which I conceive for myself in a real way (realiter), is a real concept for me",

    something that works on me. In this sense all gods, the pagan as well as the Christian ones, have possessed a real existence. Did not the ancient Moloch reign? Was not the Delphic Apollo a real power in the life of the Greeks? Kant's critique [35] means nothing in this respect. If somebody imagines that he has a hundred talers, if this concept is not for him an arbitrary, subjective one, if he believes in it, then these hundred imagined talers have for him the same value as a hundred real ones. For instance, he will incur debts on the strength of his imagination, his imagination will work, in the same way as all humanity has incurred debts on its gods. The contrary is true. Kant's example might have enforced the ontological proof. Real talers have the same existence that the imagined gods have. Has a real taler any existence except in the imagination, if only in the general or rather common imagination of man? [36] Bring paper money into a country where this use of paper is unknown, and everyone will laugh at your subjective imagination. Come with your gods into a country where other gods are worshipped, and you will be shown to suffer from fantasies and abstractions. And justly so. He who would have brought a Wendic [37] god to the ancient Greeks would have found the proof of this god's non-existence. Indeed, for the Greeks he did not exist. That which a particular country is for particular alien gods, the country of reason is for God in general, a region in which he ceases to exist.

SOURCE: Marx, Karl. The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature (1841); Appendix: Critique of Plutarch's Polemic against the Theology of Epicurus (Berlin, March 1841).


By describing Herr Hugo as the forefather and creator of the historical school, however, we are acting in accord with the latter's own view, as is proved by the gala programme of the most famous historical jurist in honour of Hugo's jubilee. By regarding Herr Hugo as a child of the eighteenth century, we are acting even in the spirit of Herr Hugo himself, as he testifies by his claim that he is a pupil of Kant and that his natural law is an offshoot of Kantian philosophy. We shall begin with this item of his manifesto.

Hugo misinterprets his teacher Kant by supposing that because we cannot know what is true, we consequently allow the untrue, if it exists at all, to pass as fully valid. He is a sceptic as regards the necessary essence of things, so as to he a courtier as regards their accidental appearance. Therefore, he by no means tries to prove that the positive is rational; he tries to prove that the positive is irrational. With self-satisfied zeal he adduces arguments from everywhere to provide additional evidence that no rational necessity is inherent in the positive institutions, e.g., property, the state constitution, marriage, etc., that they are even contrary to reason, and at most allow of idle chatter for and against. One must not in any way blame this method on his accidental individuality; it is rather the method of his principle, it is the frank, naive, reckless method of the historical school. If the positive is supposed to be valid because it is positive, then I have to prove that the positive is not valid because it is rational, and how could I make this more evident than by proving that the unreasonable is positive and the positive unreasonable, that the positive exists not owing to reason, but in spite of reason? If reason were the measure of the positive, the positive would not be the measure of reason. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in't!” [Hamlet Act II, Scene 2] Hugo, therefore, profanes all that the just, moral, political man regards as holy, but he smashes these holy things only to be able to honour them as historical relics; he desecrates them in the eyes of reason in order afterwards to make them honourable in the eyes of history, and at the same time to make the eyes of the historical school honourable.

Hugo's reasoning, like his principle, is positive, i.e., uncritical. He knows no distinctions. Everything existing serves him as an authority, every authority serves him as an argument. Thus, in a single paragraph he quotes Moses and Voltaire, Richardson and Homer, Montaigne and Ammon, Rousseau's Contrat social and Augustine's De civitate Dei. The same levelling procedure is applied to peoples. According to Hugo, the Siamese, who considers it an eternal law of nature that his king should have the mouths of charterers sewn up and the mouth of a clumsy orator slit to the ears, is just as positive as the Englishman, who would consider it a political anomaly if his king were autocratically to impose even a penny tax. The shameless Conci, who runs about naked and at most covers himself with mud, is as positive as the Frenchman who not only dresses, but dresses elegantly. The German who brings up his daughter as the jewel of the family, is not more positive than the Rajput, who kills his daughter to save himself the trouble of feeding her. In short, a rash is just as positive as the skin itself.

In one place, one thing is positive, in another something else; the one is as irrational as the other. Submit yourself to what is positive in your own home.

Hugo, therefore, is the complete sceptic. With him, the eighteenth-century scepticism in regard to the rationality of what exists appears as scepticism in regard to the existence of rationality. He accepts the Enlightenment, he no longer sees anything rational in the positive, but only in order no longer to see anything positive in the rational. He thinks the appearance of reason has been expelled from the positive in order to recognise the positive without the appearance of reason. He thinks the false flowers have been plucked from the chains in order to wear real chains without any flowers.

Hugo's relation to the other Enlighteners of the eighteenth century is about the same as that between the dissolution of the French state at the debauched court of the Regent and the dissolution of the French state during the National Assembly. In both cases there is dissolution! In the former case it appears as debauched frivolity, which realises and ridicules the hollow lack of ideas of the existing state of things, but only in order, having got rid of all rational and moral ties, to make sport of the decaying ruins, and then itself to be made sport of by them and dissolved. It is the corruption of the then existing world, which takes pleasure in itself. In the National Assembly, on the other hand, the dissolution appears as the liberation of the new spirit from old form, which were no longer of any value or capable of containing it. It is the new life's feeling of its own power, which shatters what has been shattered and rejects what has been rejected. If, therefore, Kant's philosophy must be rightly regarded as the German theory of the French revolution, Hugo's natural law is the German theory of the French ancien rigime. We find in it once more the whole frivolity of those roues, the base scepticism, which, insolent towards ideas but most subservient towards what is palpably evident, begins to feel clever only where it has killed the spirit of the positive, in order to possess the purely positive as a residue and to feel comfortable in this animal state. Even when Hugo weighs up the force of the arguments, he finds with an unerring sure instinct that what is rational and moral in institutions is doubtful for reason. Only what is animal seems to his reason to be indubitable. But let us listen to our enlightener from the standpoint of the ancien régime! Hugo's views must be heard from Hugo himself. To all his combinations should be added: he himself said.

SOURCE: Marx, Karl. "The Philosophical Manifesto of the Historical School of Law" [Supplement to the Rheiniche Zeitung No. 221, August 9, 1842], in MECW, vol, 2, p. 203.


The state of affairs in Germany at the end of the last century is fully reflected in Kant’s Critik der Practischen Vernunft. While the French bourgeoisie, by means of the most colossal revolution that history has ever known, was achieving domination and conquering the Continent of Europe, while the already politically emancipated English bourgeoisie was revolutionising industry and subjugating India politically, and all the rest of the world commercially, the impotent German burghers did not get any further than “good will”. Kant was satisfied with “good will” alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realisation of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond. Kant’s good will fully corresponds to the impotence, depression and wretchedness of the German burghers, whose petty interests were never capable of developing into the common, national interests of a class and who were, therefore, constantly exploited by the bourgeois of all other nations. These petty, local interests had as their counterpart, on the one hand, the truly local and provincial narrow-mindedness of the German burghers and, on the other hand, their cosmopolitan swollen-headedness. In general, from the time of the Reformation German development has borne a completely petty-bourgeois character. The old feudal aristocracy was, for the most part, annihilated in the peasant wars; what remained of it were either imperial petty princes who gradually achieved a certain independence and aped the absolute monarchy on a minute, provincial scale, or lesser landowners who partly squandered their little bit of property at the tiny courts, and then gained their livelihood from petty positions in the small armies and government offices — or, finally, Junkers from the backwoods, who lived a life of which even the most modest English squire or French gentilhomme de province would have been ashamed. Agriculture was carried on by a method which was neither parcellation nor large-scale production, and which, despite the preservation of feudal dependence and corvées, never drove the peasants to seek emancipation, both because this method of farming did not allow the emergence of any active revolutionary class and because of the absence of the revolutionary bourgeoisie corresponding to such a peasant class.

As regards the middle class, we can only emphasise here a few significant factors. It is significant that linen manufacture, i.e., an industry based on the spinning wheel and the hand-loom, came to be of some importance in Germany at the very time when in England those cumbersome tools were already being ousted by machines. Most characteristic of all is the position of the German middle class in relation to Holland. Holland, the only part of the Hanseatic League that became commercially important, tore itself free, cut Germany off from world trade except for two ports (Hamburg and Bremen) and since then dominated the whole of German trade. The German middle class was too impotent to set limits to exploitation by the Dutch. The bourgeoisie of little Holland, with its well-developed class interests, was more powerful than the far more numerous German middle class with its indifference and its divided petty interests. The fragmentation of interests was matched by the fragmentation of political organisation, the division into small principalities and free imperial cities. How could political concentration arise in a country which lacked all the economic conditions for it?

The impotence of each separate sphere of life (one can speak here neither of estates nor of classes, but at most of former estates and classes not yet born) did not allow any one of them to gain exclusive domination. The inevitable consequence was that during the epoch of absolute monarchy, which assumed here its most stunted, semi-patriarchal form, the special sphere which, owing to division of labour, was responsible for the administration of public interests acquired an abnormal independence, which became still greater in the bureaucracy of modern times. Thus, the state built itself up into an apparently independent force, and this position, which in other countries was only transitory — a transition stage — it has maintained in Germany until the present day. This position of the state explains both the conscientiousness of the civil servant, which is found nowhere else, and all the illusions about the state which are current in Germany, as well as the apparent independence of German theoreticians in relation to the middle class — the seeming contradiction between the form in which these theoreticians express the interests of the middle class and these interests themselves.

The characteristic form which French liberalism, based on real class interests, assumed in Germany we find again in Kant. Neither he, nor the German middle class, whose whitewashing spokesman he was, noticed that these theoretical ideas of the bourgeoisie had as their basis material interests and a will that was conditioned and determined by the material relations of production. Kant, therefore, separated this theoretical expression from the interests which it expressed; he made the materially motivated determinations of the will of the French bourgeois into pure self-determinations of “free will”, of the will in and for itself, of the human will, and so converted it into purely ideological conceptual determinations and moral postulates. Hence the German petty bourgeois recoiled in horror from the practice of this energetic bourgeois liberalism as soon as this practice showed itself, both in the Reign of Terror and in shameless bourgeois profit-making.

Under the rule of Napoleon, the German middle class pushed its petty trade and its great illusions still further. As regards the petty-trading spirit which predominated in Germany at that time, Saint Sancho can, inter alia, compare Jean Paul, to mention only works of fiction, since they are the only source open to him. The German citizens, who railed against Napoleon for compelling them to drink chicory and for disturbing their peace with military billeting and recruiting of conscripts, reserved all their moral indignation for Napoleon and all their admiration for England; yet Napoleon rendered them the greatest services by cleaning out Germany’s Augean stables and establishing civilised means of communication, whereas the English only waited for the opportunity to exploit them à tort et à travers [at random, recklessly] In the same petty-bourgeois spirit the German princes imagined they were fighting for the principle of legitimism and against revolution, whereas they were only the paid mercenaries of the English bourgeoisie. In the atmosphere of these universal illusions it was quite in the order of things that the estates privileged to cherish illusions — ideologists, school-masters, students, members of the Tugendbund— should talk big and give a suitable high-flown expression to the universal mood of fantasy and indifference.

The political forms corresponding to a developed bourgeoisie were passed on to the Germans from outside by the July [1830] revolution — as we mention only a few main points we omit the intermediary period. Since German economic relations had by no means reached the stage of development to which these political forms corresponded, the middle class accepted them merely as abstract ideas, principles valid in and for themselves, pious wishes and phrases, Kantian self-determinations of the will and of human beings as they ought to be. Consequently their attitude to these forms was far more moral and disinterested than that of other nations, i.e., they exhibited a highly peculiar narrow-mindedness and remained unsuccessful in all their endeavours.

SOURCE: Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology (1845-6), Vol. I, Chapter III: Saint Max, section 1.6.A: Political Liberalism.


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