Albrecht Altdorfer's Alexanderschalacht

Marx, Arendt, Koselleck: Modernity as Historical Consciousness

Marx and Engels, The German Ideology
Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
Arendt, The Concept of History
Koselleck, Futures Past
A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.  Certainly, when Marx and Engels penned these words as the opening line to their 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party they had meant to invoke communism as an actually existing movement whose imminent eventuality it was the task of the Manifesto to announce.  More importantly, however, in drawing out their thesis concerning the development of capitalism on a world scale, Marx and Engels had also intended to stage communism as an historical, that is to say, historicizing force.  For both authors, the modern era bears witness to this power of world-historical making, the revolutionary potential of which increases in proportion to the development of the bourgeois world-market and the social contradictions its forces and relations of production engender.  In such a worldview, nineteenth century Europe came to be regarded as the product of a definite historical process that formed and pitted together two universal classes and their respective class interests, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  Marx and Engels contended that the history of modern Europe, indeed History itself, is the history of class struggle.  It is with this insight that Marx and Engels make their famous call for world-wide revolution — Working men of all countries, unite!
To read the Manifesto in this way is to read it as elucidating a certain philosophy of history.  In his earlier German Ideology, writing against the Young Hegelians, Marx aimed to reinterpret the philosophical notion of history not as the work of contemplation (reason) but as the product of the living activity and action of men (labor), a “materialist” conception of history that would later serve as the theoretical basis for later diagnoses and predictions of capitalist development.  Where the German Ideology theoretically clarifies the materialist premise that life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life, the Manifesto visibilizes, as it were, Marx’s presuppositions concerning history by presenting an evolutionary account of capitalist development:  a world made after capital’s own image in which revolution would arise as an inevitable outcome of economic and technical progress.  In its constative calls to emancipatory action, the Manifesto can be said to rhetorically perform what the German Ideology philosophically elucidates.  Indeed, at its most exhortative, the Manifesto represents precisely the revolutionary historical consciousness whose principles the German Ideology elaborates.  In its form and content, the Manifesto therefore does more than interpret history—it incites to make it.
From this historical perspective, Marx and Engels understood the modern era not only as the proliferation of ever degrading forms of social existence under conditions of urban industrialization: they saw it as signaling a new sense of historical possibility.  Modernity, for Marx and Engels, gave rise to a new awareness of historical change, a form of historical consciousness, whose most developed form, critical and practical, they argue, consists in the revolutionary vision that calls for nothing less than the total negation of the existing world order. What they therefore saw as the defining mark of the modern era was the new historical epoch it at once adumbrates and makes possible.  Thus, we can say that the sense of being modern lay in the epochal quality of the moment: modern man is he who bears the ethos or conviction that sees underneath the surface of things the ferment of historical revolution.
In their respective study on the concept of history, Hannah Arendt and Reinhart Koselleck take the young Marx of the Manifesto and the German Ideology as typifying the emergence of a specifically modern concept of history.  (Marx was 27 years old when he wrote The German Ideology, 29 when the Manifesto was published.)  They see in Marx’s materialist conception of history, particularly in its vision and program of revolution, a unique development in the philosophy of history.  For Arendt, Marx’s argument that men “make history” leads to a type of philosophical history that is primally based on a principle of human action, which had, among others, the outcome of politicizing what had merely been for the large part of the eighteenth century a contemplative philosophy of history.  In a similar vein, Koselleck sees in Marx the culmination, even perfection, of eighteenth century deployments of “progress” and “revolution.”  Marx’s historicism, Koselleck argues, unfolds a new historical temporality that would become the definitive temporal structure of modernity itself.  Yet, Arendt and Koselleck see in Marx a fundamental limitation.  As we shall see, their critiques of Marx turn on what they analyze as a narrow teleological understanding of history’s direction, which leads to the confusion of ends to means (Arendt) and of straightjacketing the future’s openendedness (Koselleck).  What will be suggested in the following reading of Arendt and Koselleck on Marx is that if modernity embodies a new sense of historical time, its “newness” derives from the way it reconceptualizes the concept of the future in such a way that it becomes a genuine problematic for philosophical history, of which, then, we can say Marx’s is a distinctly modern expression and resolution.
Marx’s philosophy of history is first and foremost a framework for comprehending the sum totality of human deeds and actions in order to orient it toward a principle of action.  In this way, as we have seen in the Manifesto, history becomes submitted as a kind causality and teleology, which Arendt relates to the concept of process.  The concept of process underwrites, for example, Marx and Engels’ description concerning the development of the bourgeoisie as “itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange” (Manifesto, 56-57, my emphases).  The notion of process is here inflected in terms of revolution, or more precisely in terms of the contradiction that arises out of the antagonistic development of forces and relations of production.  But “process,” as Arendt notes, was already a concept-metaphor that had been undergoing tremendous change in the fields of metaphysics and the natural sciences.  Kant and Hegel employed the concept in their respective philosophy of history to demonstrate how seemingly accidental historical events, even individual actions, can in fact be regarded as being determined by and thus exhibiting a more general universal principle (see my post on Kant’s cosmopolitanism and Hegel’s philosophy of history).  Philosophically, we can say that the concept of process was a way for Kant and Hegel to give meaning to what appeared as simple, mechanical temporal succession, endowing time’s passing with purposive shape and rational meaning. Accordingly, this resignification of the structure of time’s succession as rational-purposive produced a teleological framework for understanding historical progress and development.  Koselleck would later describe this incorporation of process into historical time as the temporalization of history.  To put it as succinctly as possible, time becomes history when it is connected to a universal purpose.
It is out of these intellectual contexts from which the modern concept of history arises.  Arendt charts the development as follows.  Firstly, there is a departure from the classical Greek and Latin concepts of nature-time, whose form is the circular non-directional structure of what she calls being-forever.  The ancients did not regard human deeds as a whole but rather concentrated on single events, extracting from them their greatness, as in Herodotus’ histories.  This meant that the recording of history was narrowed and pertained only to the extraordinary, of which Koselleck will also analyze in terms of historia magistrae vitae, or history’s function as essentially pedagogical.  Secondly, a radically new political philosophy emerged in the last third of the eighteenth century, best exemplified, according to Arendt, in the writings of Hobbes who broke away from the Aristotelian injunction of discovering principles of first causes toward a philosophical inquiry oriented instead in establishing purposive ends.  Late eighteenth century writings grasped man as the unique being endowed with the exclusive power of positing ends for himself: as Kant himself wrote in the third Critique: “man is the only being on earth who forms a concept of ends for himself and who by means of his reason [Vernunft] can make a system of ends out of an aggregate of purposively formed things” (Critique of Judgment, 5:427).  On this view, man has a special status among natural beings in virtue of his unique capacity to set and posit ends, a capacity which assigns him the highest place in a teleological system of nature as precisely the moral-rational agent capable of autonomy, freedom, and self-determination.  I want to suggest here that we can understand the concept of man as developmental in two senses: man develops toward his perfection and is that being endowed with the power to develop the world of nature to his own ends.  In Arendt’s analysis, by the nineteenth century, man was viewed with powers not only in the realm of nature but in the realm of freedom, that is to say, history.
Where does Marx fit in all of this?  According to Arendt, Marx derived from these intellectual developments an understanding of political action and conscience from historical consciousness.  Philosophical history (universal history for Kant, world history for Hegel) enabled a position from which one is able retrospectively to relate and connect the particularistic aims of individual action to the higher universal aims of reason.  Marx simply appropriated this teleological function of (Kantian-Hegelian) philosophical history and combined it with the (Hobbesian) teleology of political philosophy.  This synthesis led to Marx’s own historical thesis regarding man:  man is the natural species in virtue of which he can regard himself as an end and as a being capable of positing ends, whose substance Marx calls labor-power, and whose proper horizon is history.  In brief, man is not simply “in” history, he is that unique being who makes it.
On this point Arendt presents something like a metacommentary on Marx’s argument concerning the meaning-making capacity of historical man.  Arendt suggests that in the rapid industrialization of  Europe man becomes so thoroughly alienated and his world bereft of meaning that he—especially the philosopher— becomes desperate to imbue meaning where there may in fact be none.  Such a situation leads not only to the instrumentalization of man, but to the instrumentalization of meaning itself in the desperate search to give function to history’s direction.  In Arendt’s reading of Marx, the materialist interpretation of history which seeks to link historical meaning with human actional ends has the consequence of reducing and narrowing the function of meaning as such.  Arendt writes,
The danger of transforming the unknown and the unknowable “higher aims” into planned and willed intentions was that meaning and meaningfulness were transformed into ends—which is what happened when Marx took the Hegelian meaning of all history—the progressive unfolding and actualization of the idea of Freedom—to be an end of human action, and when he furthermore, in accordance with tradition, viewed this ultimate “end” as the end-product of a manufacturing process.  But neither freedom nor any other meaning can ever be the product of a human activity in the sense in which the table is clearly the end-product of the carpenter’s activity. (The Concept of History, 78).
Arendt’s point here is that meaning not only becomes reduced to an instrumental end, but also that it becomes difficult to discern the difference between ends and means.  History, which for Arendt is fundamentally open, comes to be viewed as though it were a finished man-made object for use.  Because of the Marxian objective of making politics history’s first principle, history becomes immured in a means-ends schema; it becomes itself totalitarian:  “if one imagines that one can ‘make history’, one cannot escape the consequence that there will be an end to history” (The Concept of History, 79).  In other words, telos becomes also eskaton within the Marxian framework.  “Whenever we hear of grandiose aims in politics, such as establishing a new society in which justice will be guaranteed forever, or fighting a war to end all wars or to make the whole world safe for democracy, we are moving in the realm of this kind of thinking” (The Concept of History, 79).  Thus, Marx’s philosophy of history renders the intelligibility of history exclusively within a teleological-eschatological historicist frame.  Yet, cannot one argue that the point for Marx is to posit meaningful ends for action in order precisely to change and uplift oneself from the degraded conditions of life?  What Arendt finds ultimately unsatisfactory, however, is that such a position is itself an ideology, whose content refers to a program, or an idea of historical process that is “incapable of guaranteeing men any kind of immortality because its ends cancel out and make unimportant whatever went before…single events and deeds and sufferings have no more meaning here than hammer and nails have with respect to the finish table” (The Concept of History, 80).
Koselleck arrives at a similar judgment about the instrumentalization of history in Marx but does so less in terms of means-ends than in the more pernicious concept of progress that it implies. Like Arendt, Koselleck identifies the concept of process as a fundamental feature of modern historical consciousness.  What Koselleck adds to the concept of process, however, is its constitutive link to the concept of prognosis, which combined to produce the imagination of progress.  According to Koselleck, with the secularization of the political, prognosis emerged as the antonym to that former paradigm of futurity, namely, prophecy.  Rather than prophets hypostasizing the what-will-be, politicians became something like rational soothsayers.  To paraphrase Koselleck, calculative politicians supplanted superstitious prophets, whose prognoses of the future became the defining and determining element of political action, and by extension, of historical meaning in general.
For Koselleck, prognosis and process crossbred to create the idea of progress that would become the central feature of the modern consciousness of history.  This development, however, did not only emerge in intellectual contexts but in fact in concrete political situations.  For example, Koselleck describes the ways in which European states sought to suppress millenarian prophecies and their promises of divine salvation in order to consolidate the political influence of the state.  However, in so doing, the state had to satisfy in some other way a future with which the people can continue to expect and hope for.  As Koselleck writes, “progress unfolded to the degree that the state and its prognostics were never able to satisfy soteriological demands which persisted within a state whose existence depended on the elimination of millenarian expectations” (Futures Past, 17).  Thus, the state had to produce, as it were, its own prophecies of the future, albeit guised in terms of rational prognosis which it then subsequently and ideologically called progress.
With the state’s monopoly over the future, a new sense of historicity and futurity emerged.  The future came to be conceived differently under the framework of progress.  Koselleck argues that the trinity of prognosis, process, and progress came together to form a new logic of temporal determination that look to the future as though it were something knowable (or as Arendt would phrase it, man-made).  The future came to be tethered to a set of rational predicates.  On this view, the future was something one can rationally anticipate.  This represents a radical break from prior understandings of history:  insofar as pre-eighteenth century prophecies were the verso of historia magistra vitae, progress became the complement to history’s reorientation not toward the past but the future. The future, in other words, became a space of pure possibility, albeit one amenable to political exigencies and social ends.
There is a clear influence of Heidegger in Koselleck’s analysis of progress in Futures Past in at least two respects. Firstly, Koselleck’s conceptualization of the chronological past as that which was once a lived present of an anticipated future echoes Heidegger’s hermeneutical circle.  Secondly, Koselleck’s discussion concerning the prioritization of the future in the eighteenth century’s temporalization of historical time derives from Heidegger’s analysis of time as Dasein’s transcendental horizon.  We can make the link even more apparent.  If Heidegger shifts the ontological priority from actuality to possibility such that we orient our understanding of beings and their manner of existence, including their having-been (i.e., their historicity), as possibilities, then we can also understand in similar Heideggerian terms Koselleck’s insistence that what is important is not what happened in history but rather the manner in which what was actualized in historical time was born out of a field of possibilities, or what Koselleck terms as the “horizon of expectations.”  In this way, we can perhaps say that Koselleck gives historical form to Heidegger’s ontological structures.
Yet, it should be clarified that historical time for Koselleck is a peculiar form of temporality.  It is not natural time but rather time understood as essentially human, that is to say, social and political.  This is so because the time of the decision and the time of action — basic measural units of history — are temporally determined by orders that exceed the laws of nature, an inheritance, as we’ve seen, from eighteenth century political and moral philosophies.  Koselleck’s understanding of historical time thus presupposes that its temporalization be grounded in human action, an analysis that is coextensive with Arendt’s.  As with Arendt, Koselleck sees in Marx the yoking together of a historico-philosophical perspective with a concrete, albeit universalizing, political end, which reduces the present and the future as though they were calculable entities.  Koselleck critique of Marx here is that historical time leads to a conception of the future as a rational foresight, that is to say, a programmatic plan.  Just as Arendt  saw Marx’s concept of history as politicizing what was merely a contemplative philosophy of history, Koselleck takes Marx to be the figure that subverts metaphysical language precisely into a language of the historical.  Like Arendt, Koselleck emphasizes Marx’s theory of history as being underwritten by a reinterpretation of human action, whereby action comes to be regarded as the source and principle of historical-making.  The future’s radical openness to the unknown becomes circumscribed by the Marxian objective not only to make-history but indeed to make-revolution.
Yet, as Koselleck notes, there lies an aporia within Marx’s historicism that has led to a deep-seated ambivalence among Marxists:  “the modern concept of history,” Koselleck writes, “draws its ambivalence from its necessary conception of history as a totality…but a totality that can never be complete, for, as we know, the future remains unknown” (Futures Past, 104).  The radical alterity of the future, in other words, becomes at once the occasion for historical change but also its constitutive limit. Koselleck’s point here is more Benjaminian than Arendtian: insofar as modernity (neuzeit) announces the radical epoch-making power of the present, the now may be reappropriated less toward totalitarian ends (Arendt’s critique) than toward a perspective from which one can view, like the Romantic poet and painter, the ways in which the present opens itself onto a multiplicity of possibile futures.
Image: detail of Albrecht Altdorfer’s The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529).
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This entry was published on March 28, 2012 at 9:18 AM. It’s filed under Critical Theory, Philosophy, Philosophy of History, Time and Temporality and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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