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Kant as a problem for Marxism

Kall. as a JRoblelD to.. Ma..xislD
Martin Barker
,The relation between the thought of Immanuel Kant
and the Marxist movement has been a distinctly
problematic one. Kant, as the founder of the
German idealist school, was recognised by Marx as
one important precursor of his own theory in a
general sense. But his understanding of any specific
importance in Kantian thought – while insightful in
gen’eral (1) – at times betrayed an astonishingly
harsh dismissal. In the German Ideology, the
writing where he came to terms with his ‘philosophical conscience’, while sensing quite correctly that
the heart of Kant is his Critique of Practical ReasoI

not, as traditionally thought, the Critique of Pure
Reason, he nonetheless treats Kant merely as the
theoretical representative for:

••• 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. (2)
In common with this interpretation, therefore, he

understands Kant as relegating the resolution of a
conflict between the individual and society, to the
world beyond.

Basically, though, Marx had very little to say
about Kant. Lucio Colletti, who has recently tried
to reconstruct the theoretical relationShip between
the two (3), has had to do it by way.of Marx’s
critique of Regel’; suggesting from the results of
the critique that Marx ends up fac~g certain Kantian
problems. But he does not claim explicit reference
of these problems to Kant.

This blindness on the part of Marx is not common.

Re was usually quick to grant recognition to important, or even minor forbears (4). One might be
tempted either to join Marx in dismissing Kant as
a theoretician, or to conclude with Kant himself
that: ‘I am a century too early with my works; it
will be a hundred years before they are properly
understood. ‘

Neither would help in grasping what
are the essential elements in Kant’s thought, so that
we can know whether the appearance of Kantianism
in the Marxist tradition must always be a signal for
political worries (as has often appeared to be the
case in the past).


Marxist critiques of Kant
If we consider the traditional images, and consequently the traditional objections to Kant as a
theorist, they are as follows. Re is seen, first, as
providing a last-ditch defence of theism against the
encroachments of science. In this respect, he is
seen to be in the same tradition as Descartes, who,
by positing a strict dualism of body and soul, was
able to allow Newtonian mechanics full sway over the
body, leaving the soul to the governance of God.

Kant, it is said, reproduces this dualism in his
distinction between appearance and reality, or
1 It was Marx who coined the famous phrase about the Germans doing in
their heads what the French had done in practice.

2 K Marx and F Engels, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers,
1964, p207
3 In ‘Kant Hegel and Marx’ in L Coll~tti, Marxism & Hegel, New Left Books,
4 Das Kapital, for instance, is littered with footnotes in which he pays his
respects even to those he opposes fiercely in other ways


between phenomenon and noumenon as he calls
them. For God is then sealed off in the noumenal
realm, only graspable by faith.

Secondly, he is seen as introducing a hard separation of fact and value, to the point where they
become irreconcilable contradictories. A sample
of this approach, seen as an article of faith hardly
needing argument, can be seen in the following:

In the case of the natural world, Kant disting-

uished between things as they are (in-themselves)
which are unknowable and the phenomenal world
of appearances subject to causal laws. Correspondingly, man’s existence has a similar dual
structure: man as a phenomenal being is under
the sway of unalterable causal laws, while the
other aspect of his existence (the noumenal
sphere) is characterised by freedom and selfdetermination. Thus any knowledge of man as
a social being could only be achieved through
the speculative methods of philosophy. The
result of Kant’s distinction was radically to
separate fact from value, relegating the former
to the domain of nature and the latter to the
social. (6)


Thirdly, Kant is seen as introducing a purely
formal, contentless ethics, Which can therefore be
filled with any content. As a consequence he is read
as the theorist of the abstractly free individual,
from the interstices of which analysis (now seen as
a simple version of bourgeois individualism) can
come all forms of domination. This is connected
with a further objection (one which Durkheim apparently makes a virtue of (7»’ that Kant makes a hard
distinction between reason and emotion, therefore
making of morality a Puritan system of duties which
are to be followed by continuous acts of self -denial.

Finally, Kant is regarded as introducing a new
form of fatalism which neatly matched the uncertainty and practical peSSimism of the German burghers:

So sharp was his distinction between appearance
and reality … that reality ceased to be knowable,
one could only act ‘as if’ it existed at all. So
radical was Kant’s dualism that, paradoxically,
his effort to save human freedom seemed to result
in a new form of philoso.phical fatalism. (8)
The key, in fact, to all the objections is embodied
in Anchor’s comment. For all of them derive from
a claim about the relationShip between appearance
and reality, or the phenomenon and noumenon as
Kant called them. All the claimed dilemmas and
oppositions dovetail into that distinction, or rather,
into an interpretation of that distinction. For it is
argued that Kant uses this distinction to argue that
God is what Kant called a ‘Regulative Idea’, that is,
something beyond the realm of appearance, and
therefore not capable of being proved – but also not
capable of being disproved. Kant can therefore
make religion a matter of rational faith, safeguarded
against any possible scientific development; for
science is the method of comprehending appearance,
6 R McDonough, Ideology as False Consciousness: Lukacs, WorkiIig Papers .

in Cultural Studies No.10 p33
7 ‘There is no moral act that does not imply a sacrifice, for, as Kant has
noted, the law of duty cannot be obeyed without humiliating our indiVidual,
or as he calls it, our “empirical sensibility”.’ E Durkheim, ‘The Dualism
of Human Nature’ in K Wolf! (ed.) Emile Durkheim, Ohio State UP, 1960,

8 R Anchor, The Enlightenment Tradition, Prentice·Hall, 1967, p119



not reality. The fact/value distinction is seen as
growing out of the same problem: for, it is argued,
Kant sees value, and all morality, as deriving from
his concept of freedom which is only applicable as
a noumenal category, while the phenomenal world
is governed by mechanical causality. The contentless ethic comes from the same source, for Kant is
seen to insist that morality as such has no empirical
content, and therefore the rnorallaws derivable
from the cmcept of freedom also can have no empirical content. The pursuit of the formal requirements
of duty is therefore seen as demanding the ‘humiliation’ of all empirical desires such as the deSire for
happiness or self-realisation. Finally, the fatalism
is derived precisely because the realm of freedom
(the noumenal world) is seen to be out of all contact
with the world as we experience it (phenomenally).

A_n ahistorical philosophy?

correspondingly, implies the ~rpetual necessity
of the division of head and hand and, hence, the
impossibility for ever of social classlessness,
the answer that we require must, on the contrary,
be in historical and materialistic terms. (10)
This reads Kant as not only not concerned with a
historical understanding of the possibility of knowledge, but also as producing an account that is
incompatible with a historical account. In saying this,
Sohn-Rethel has reintroduced the absolute antinomies
which he had apparently overcome by allowing that
empirical knowledge has a priori grounds determining its form. But now, the opposition has become
one between history and theory. He therefore concludes that Kant represents only the apex of bourgeois
thought, which is to be taken over by Marxism via
a critique which reveals it as the most systematic
possible version of bourgeois thought. The problems, the concepts, and the system are all, according to Solm-Rethel, those of the rising bourgeois

Traditionally, therefore, what Marxists of all
hues have made out of this, has been the denial of
the importance of Kant to the actual construction of
a Marxist theory. He is important as a precursor
of Hegel, but was dedicated to ahistorical deductions What is particularly crucial about Solm-Rethel’s
of no use to us:

interpretation, is that he cites against Kant a problem which I think can be shown to be absolutely
However we read Kant, Hegel and Marx could both
central to Marxism: the pr’oblem of the educators.

argue that Kant’ s separation of the noumenal and
argues that there is a necessary distinction
phenomenal worlds made it impossible for him
implicit in Kant between head and hand. This clearly
to discover the concrete historical mediations
recalls the problematic of the Third Thesis on
for the transvaluations of human practice. (9)

Of course, not all have agreed. There have been
The materialist doctrine that men are products
serious attempts to make something more of Kantof circumstances and upbringing, and that,
ianism for the Marxist tradition. Lucien Goldmann,
therefore, changed men are products of other
in his fine bqok, presses a Lukacsian mould out of
circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets
Kant – not without success. But apart from the fact
it is men who change circumstances and that
that the book is’ marred with a strong idealistic
essential to educate the educator himself.

tendency, we are left at the end with little sense of
Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at
the actual use that we can make of Kant for our own
dividing SOCiety into two parts, one of which is
purposes. More, it seems like an exercise in
superior to society. (11)
historical honesty.

One of the recent revaluations that has done Some- This is a key point in Marxist theory, it is even the
thing to discover the historical and theoretical sig- key point in :Marxist theory, because it is the point
nificance of Kant, still nonetheless concedes much
of conjuncture between theory and practice. On the
to the tradition of anti-Kantianism. Sohn-Rethel, in one hand, it derives its force as a question of theory
his inSightful studies on epistemology and ideology, from the perception of the possibility of a world
which is, according to one’s theoretical preferences,.


It is an essential condition of capitalism that the
rational, non-alienated, planned, post-ideological,
teclmology of production be fOWlded upon knowor whatever; inshort, a socialist world. But it also
immediately raises the total question of agency ledge of nature from sources other than manual
labour. And how a knowledge thus defined and
why the working clas!?, etc, which is at once a
yet reliable,· exact and objectively valid is contheoretical question, and a practical one – in what
stituted and indeed .possible, is a question which
ways can organisation and action by the working
must be answered, especially if we do not. share
class be brought to bear on the capitalist system so
the idealistic belief in the original theoretical
that it can carry through its role of self -education?

In that little question, who shall educate the educatcapacities of a ‘pure intellect’.

The epistemological interest in science is clearly ors, is embodied a whole problematic.

specified historically and economically by its tie ..

If it were the case, therefore, that Kant had never
up with the capitalist mode of production. It is not seen a problem of any description here, and also
Kant’s ahistorical concern with the possibility of
that the problem is not even stateable in terms of
knowledge and of experience in general and as
his concepts and his theoretical outlook, the significance of Kant for Marxism would be minimal. He
such .. Still, even taking leave from Kant’s
philosophical apriorism, the questions he asks
would be merely an important part of the history of
bourgeois theory. But the hard fact is, that Kant in
– how are pure mathematics and pure science
fact directly posed the problem, because it was
possible? – look “ConfUSingly like the ones of
concern to us. The reason for the similarity
implicit in his whole theory, and worked hard to
lies in the emphatically ahistorical or rather
find a solution to it.

timeless, universal character of mathematics
The .nlost explicit discussion of the problem occurs
and science and indeed of all intellectual labour
in one of the most neglected of Kant.’s mature
writings, an essay on history published in 1784 (12).

divided from manual labour. While Kant’s
10 A Sohn-Rethei, ‘!v!ental and M.anual Labour in lI.13.rxism’ in waitoo and Hall
answer is in line with this character and,

Who are the educators?



9 J O’Neill, ‘On Theory and Criticism ili Marx’ in P Walton and SHall (eds)
Situating lV!arX, p77

op cit p46
11 K Marx and F Engels op cit pp651-2
12 I Ka..nt, ‘Idea fvr a Unive:,sal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View’



But the solution he proposes, and its theoretical
underpinning, is implicit in the whole of his work.


How men make history
In this essay, Kant sets out nine Theses, which are
the result of the application of Kant’s mature investigation of the nature of man and his capacity for
knowledge and morality, to history. It is necessary
to trace the course of the argument in fair detail,
to see how Kant arrives at the problem of, and the
attempted solution to, the ‘educators’ (13). The
beginning of the main argument, essentially, is the
Third Thesis:

Nature has willed that man shall produce wholly
out of himself everything that goes beyond the
mechanical ordering of his animal existence;
and that he should partake of no other happiness
or pe.rfection than that which he himself, independently of instinct, has created by his own
reason. (14)
The crux of this Thesis is the denial of any instinctual basis to man. We are given the opportunities
and capacities in general to make of ourselves what
we will:

Man, accordingly, was not to be guided by
instinct, not nurtured and instructed with readymade knowledge; rather he· should bring forth
everything out of his own resources. Securing
his own food, shelter, safety and defence (for
which Nature gave him neither the horns of the
bull, nor the claws of the lion, nor the fangs of
the dog, but pands only), all amusement which
can make life pleasant, inSight and intelligence,
finally even goOdness of heart – all this should
be wholly his own work. (15)
If it is to be man’s own work, it is risky. The risks

are various. Kant discusses the theoretical possibility that we might have remained in a state of
Arcadian bliss’, at such a low level of development
that human capacities are hardly developed at all.

But noting the fact that massive development has in
fact taken place, Kant had to explain the motive
force behind change and human social growth. For
Kant made it clear that, even if theoretically ‘men
make themselves’, nonetheless, they decidedly do
it ‘under conditions not of their own choosing’. In a
statement that has all the appearance of paradox,
Kant writes:

The means employed by Nature to bring about the
development of all the capacities of men is their
antagonism in SOCiety, so far as this is, in the
end, the cause of a lawful order among men.

By ‘antagonism’ I mean the unsocial sociability,
ie their propensity to enter into society, bound
together with a mutual opposition which constantly
threatens to break up the society. (16)
The appearance of paradox comes first from the
fact that, after the Third Thesis had denied the presence of Significant instincts, the Fourth has put
two back: a social instinct, and an anti-social
instinct. Without going into the whole explanation
and argument, in fact, the resolution of the paradox
consists in the following. Kant sees social life as
the precondition of being human at all. He talks of
the tendency to socialise as making man more than
in I Kant, On History. Library of Liberal Arts, 1963
13 I am, nonetheless, condensing the argument which I have dealt with at
length elsewhere; so some problems and possible objections are left out.

14 I Kant, op cit, p13
15 I Kant, op cH, p14
16 I Kant, op cit, pIS


‘the developed form of his natural capacities’. But
the anti-social tendency is not of a Hobbesian sort;
it is not a tendency to disengage from society,
rather it is a tendency to a specific form of antagonistic social relations. These constitute a
specific way of becoming human. But the antagonism is not instinctual or rooted in any basic human
nature. It comes from the limited experience of any
particular individual, who therefore confronts the
world with only a partial understanding. The antagonistic social relations are those in which each
individual attempts to make use of other individuals
to his own end. And that is attempted because the
world beyond the individual appears governed by
(social) laws which are alien to him or her.

This point is important because it connects closely
with Kant’s then developing ethical theory. In that,
he gives as a prime version of the Categorical
Imperative that we should never treat others merely
as means to an end only, but always as ends-inthemselves. The substantive implications of this
need disentangling, but it certainly is very important in seeing how he now understands history. By
application of his ethical theory, we can see how
antagonistic social relations are decidedly immoral.

But that does not lead Kant to a simple condemnation. On the contrary, first we must recognise
their naturalness; and having done that, he applauds
the antagonisms for the most interesting reason:

Thanks be to Nature, then, for the incompatibility, for heartless competitive vanity, for the
insatiable desire to possess and to rule! •••
The natural urges to these, the sources of unsociableness and mutual opposition from which
so many evils arise, drive men to new exertions
of their forces and thus to the manifold development of their capacities. (18)

Towards a rational society
Kant is here taking an enormous stride forward,
theoretically. For his model of history, deriving
from his general philosophy, now admits the
naturalness, but not the inevitability, of competitive social relations; recognises the evil they
embody, and also generate; but nonetheless
develops from his conception a theory of social
development. The theory, crudely put, is that even
18 I Kant. op elt, p16

with antagonistic social relations, the degree and
richness of social relationships determines the
level of possibilities of any individual’s personal
development. In other words, in order to extend
my ‘exploitation’ (19) of you, I need to deepen the
social relations between us, not weaken them.

Exploitation can increase, rather than reduce,
social interdependence; can be the mechanism for
the development of human capacities, rather than
the source simply of mutual destruction.

But not only does Kant see this vital logic, he also
adds the last dimension which is required to make
him useful to Marxism. He pOSits as an essential
element, both practically in terms of our acting in
the present with an orientation to the future, and
theoretically in terms of our capacity to grasp the
essential nature of the present, that social antagonism can be superceded:

What is the good of esteeming the majesty and
wisdom of Creation in the realm of brute nature
• •• if that part of the great stage of supreme
wisdom which contains the purpose of all the
others – the history of mankind – must remain
an unceaSing reproach to it? (20)
Kant is insistent that a rational, non-antagonistic
society must be possible,even if only as a theoretical condition in the light of which we think and act
now. OtherWise, he says, Rousseau would be right
‘in preferring the state of savages, as long, that
is, as the last stage to which the human race must
climb is not attained’ (21). Kant’s problem therefore was: how was a rational society pOSSible, both
theoretically and practically? It is my interpretation that the bulk of his writings in the Critique of
Pure Reason aId the Critique of p’ractical Reason,
was devoted to the theoretical possibility of this;
and his writing in ‘Idea for a Universal History •.• ‘

to its practical possibility. It can, of course, be
argued that Marx’s scathing comment on him is true
to this extent, that in the German conditions of the
late 18th century, Kant was not really able to go
beyond consideration of the theoretical possibility
of freedom, while consideration of the practicalpolitical mechanisms f or achieving it is restricted
to one essay.

The differences between a cooperative society and
the present antagonistic society need restating. In
the present, men form antagonistic social relations
in which each attempts to use others to his own ends”
that is, as means only. This has the effect of enforCing human development; we become increasingly
socialised, and therefore in one sense more humanised, because humanity requires social relationShips. But the cause of unSOCiable, antagonistic
relations is not any innate drive; rather, it is that
our understanding of the world is limited to the
world as it appears. And it appears that any
progress on my part requires the subjection of you
to my will. But the very fact of this reveals a
paradox which reason can disentangle. For in subjecting you to my will, it becomes evident that both
I and you are conscious agents, more than mere
objects of mechanical causation. Therefore, the
greater the degree of antagonistic social development, the greater the possibility of reason discovering the fact that all this antagonism is at the. level of
appearance. Thus reason can show us the possibility
of human mutual development on the basis of cooperation: reason here understood as the capacity to
19 That is, my use of you as means only to my ends.

20 I Kant, op cit, p25
21 I Kant, op cH, p21

have insight into the way the world could be. (22)
We are left, therefore, with a problem of the relation between the world-as-it-is, and the world-asit-could-be. It is in tackling this problem, which is
immediately a theoretical and a practical problem”
that Kant predates Marx’s statement of the
‘educators’ problem:

Man is an animal which, if it lives among others
of its kind, requires a master. For he certainly
abuses his freedom with respect to other men,
and although, as a reasonable being he wishes
to have a law which limits the freedom of all,
his selfish impulses tempt him, where pOSSible,
to exempt himself from them. He thus requires
a master, who will break his will, and force him
to obey a will that is universally valid, under
which each can be free. But whence does he get
his master? Only from the human race. But then
the master is himself an animal, and needs a
master. (23)
Of course the language is that of ‘the 18th-century
thinkers, but the problem is that of Marxism. Kant

Let him begin it as he will, it is not to be seen
how he can procure a magistracy which can
maintain public justice and which is itself just,
whether it be a single person or a group of
several people. For each of them will always
abuse his freedom if he has noone above him to
exercise force in accordance with the laws. The
highest master should be just in himself, and yet
be a man. This task is therefore the hardest of
all ••• (24)
• •• but it is still a task.

Kant in the end finds the practical achievement of
it impossible, or nearly so. He posits its possibility
as a necessary condition of liVing; but finds the
difficulties of realisation overwhelming. It is in fact
quite noticeable how his certainty diminishes at the
end of the article, as he tackles the transformation
issue. Statements become questions; questions
become hesitant, even querulous:

Would it be expected • •• that states ••• should
form all sorts of unions which in their turn are
destroyed by new impacts, until once, finally,
by chance a structure should arise which could
maintain its existence – a fortunate accident that
could hardly occur? Or are we not rather to
suppose that Nature here follows a lawful course
in gradually lifting our race from the lower levels
of animality to the highest level of humanity ••• ?

Or perhaps we should prefer to conclude that ‘”
absolutely nothing, at least, nothing wise, is to
issue? . (25)
It would indeed be amazing, if I am right in any way
in seeing Kant as having identified correctly a major
practical/historical paradox in advance of Marx, if
he had gone on to provide a solution (26). For what
enabled Kant to discover the dimensions of this
22 This interpretation of reason Is also a signal for a whole reinterpretation.

Kant’s account of reason in the two main Critiques has been singularly mlsWlderstood, almost as another mode of perception which, because it
attempts to look at noumena, can’t really see anything at all. But in the
case of humanity, the noumenal character to be grasped is a series of
~otentials: man is capable of being free, and rational, and moral. That is
lierebY to make reason a faculty for grasping what is materially possible.

23 I Kant, op cit, p17

24 I Kant, op cit, pl7
25 I Kant, op elt, pp19-20
26 It has been said that Rousseau, by whom Kant was very much influenced,
also fOWld himself in this situation. For him, the General WW, with its
metaphysical bases, had to become the theoretical substitute of a practical
political will embodied in a specifiable group, precisely because his ex·
perlence of the world revealed no group or cla,lis With the characteristics
of simultaneous universality, and sectional power.


problem was an emergent philosophical anthropology of ‘man the maker’, still partly conceived
idealistically. He lacked all the derived categories
of labour, production, and class which gave Marx
his solution.

of the faculty of deSire, gets its holding assigned
to it by the Critique of Practical Reason. (30)

Kant’s distinction between a phenomenal WOrld,
open to perception and to knowledge through
scientific concepts and methods, and an unknowable world of free subjectivity is, of course,
open to serious philosophical objections. The
principal difficulty is that the resolution of the
problem of freewill and determinism (as well as
the other problems of speculative metaphysics)
require a good deai. to be said about the nature
of the supposedl¥” unknowable thingS-inthemselves. (27)

metaphysics of morals, of which I shall publish
the last part first, and I rejoice over it in
anticipation. (32)

Understanding is the Kantian faculty for grasping the
world of appearance, by analysing concepts and their
relation to experience. Reason ls the faculty that can
give us insight into the noumenal nature of things,
There is of course a great deal more that needs to
because it analyses and synthesises concepts in their
be said about Kant’s notion of the human construction of history. But just from what I have indicated, relation to tre totality. But reason is here specifically limited to the faculty of deSire, that is, to man
the follOwing points can, I think, be gained. First,

Sohn-Rethel ‘s argument that Kant was a metaphysical
This demand for a reinterpretation of Kant is not
idealist whose thought, because it was ahistorical,
an idle matter. For, as has already been suggested,
could not encompass the problem of the educators,
Kant’s system is not primarily one of theoretical
is just wrong. He is wrong because he has in part
reason, but of practical reason (this is something
misunderstood what Kant was attempting in his
instinctively grasped). He saw the Critique of
Critiques. In particular, both Sohn-Rethel and the
Pure Reason as a ground-clearing exercise (‘like a
others who find fatalism etc in Kant, wrongly constone from the path’ (31)) before the essential job.

strue the noumenon/phenomenon relation in his
that job was the construction of a scientific and

human ethic, rooted in the nature of man and the
Without going into a long account of this, it must
first be recalled that Kant saw himself as an ideal- possibility of a rational world. And he insists right
at the start of his Practical Reason that the whole
ist. We should expect from this a theoretical imbalance between the possibilities of knowledge of the of reason is practical. His own preferences were
clearly stated:

natural, and the human world. Therefore Bent on ‘s
sharp remark will only hold against Kant’s concept
Then I will go on to metaphysics, Which has only
of natural science, as I shall show:

two parts: the metaphysics of nature, and the

As I shall show, the world of free subjectivity can
have a lot said about it. Kant is insistent upon the
special pOSition of the concept of freedom in this
res~ct. And Benton is only partially right in his
consequential comment:

The moral philosophy was the heart of Kantianism;
and it was a very special moral philosophy. Not at
all the formal, contentless Puritan self-flagellation
most interpreters would have us believe. On the
contrary, as Cassirer notes:

What is truly permanent in human nature is not
any condition in which it once existed and from
which it has fallen; rather it is the goal
and towards which it moves. Kant looks for
constancy not in what man is but in what he
should be. (33)

And, more importantly, as I have tried to show,
‘could be’.

Accordingly, attempts to modify, or even
The second philosophical reason for misun~erstand
altogether abandon Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal
ing on this score arises from the ignoring of the
distinction played a vital role in the development
force of the terms ‘noumenon’ and ‘phenomenon’.

of German philosophy following Kant’s death. (28)
For this specifies that they are not simply two alterFor the reasons for the attempts to modify or reject native worlds, but that one is an ordered version of
the other. The problem therefore is to trace the way
the distinction are not purely philosophical. For it
was his phrasing of the distinction that enabled Kant in which reality appears. (This is in Marxist terms
to see the possibility of a free, rational world. For none other than the probiem of ideology.)
l1e did not separate them crudely. On the contrary,
for him practical action, that is moral action, could
in a sense break down the boundaries between freedom and causality. Thus he writes: ‘The concept of Why say all this, though, in a paper on Kant’s relafreedom is meant to actualise in the sensible world tion to Marxism? As I argued before, I believe that
the end proposed by its laws. ‘(29) Kant specifically in many senses the Third Thesis on Feuerbach conconnects the possibility of this, and the impossibil- stitutes the heart of the Marxist problematic. And
it is not accidental that Kant discovers the problem,
ity of knowledge of the noumenal character of nonand has at his disposal the theoretical means to
human nature, with his idealism:

move towards a solution. What, therefore, I am
Properly, therefore, it was understanding arguing for ,is that within the rich texture of Kant’s
which insofar as it contains constitutive a priori
thought there are elements, and in particular a
cognitive principles has its special realm and one structure, which need preserving in the transf or mati on
moreover in the faculty of knowledge – that the
from idealism to materialism. If we agree with
Critique, called in a general way that of Pure
Lukacs that Marxism is the theo:ry of proletarian
Reason, was intended to establish in secure but
revolution, then two points from Kant become
particular possession against all other competieSSential to us:

tors. In the same way, reason, which contains
30 I Kant, op cit, p4
31 I Kant, letter to Herz, quoted in F van de Pttte; Kant as Philosophical
constitutive a priori principles solely in respect
Anthr0rl0g1st , Martinus Nijhoff, 1971 p37. This is an exceIIent -book,

Kant’s legacy for Marxism

27 T Benton, Phi10S-;~~undations of the Three Sociologies, Routledge
and Kegan paUl, 147, pi04
28 T Benton, loe eit
29 I Kant, The Critique of Judgement, Oxford, 1952, p14



one 01 he first to grasp that at the centre of Kant is a perception of a
possible future.

32 F van de Pitte, loc ·~it
33 E Cassirer, Rousseau, !{ant, Goethe, Princeton UP, 1945, p20

(1) The theory has to contain the possibility of
liberation. It is worth while recalling Marx’s
insistence that he had surpassed theoretically not
merely Hegelianism, but also the metaphysical
materialists of the Enlightenment. And it was the
metaphYSical materialists who had created the impassable dichotomies of the ·sort that ‘man is born
free, but is everywhere in chains’. Who put them
on him? Who can take them off? Marxism as the
theory of the liberation of the working class supplied
the answers to these questions. For the working
class is the creator, in a crucial sense, of its own
exploitation, and therefore has the potential capacity
to end it – and thereby free the whole of humanity.

But if Marxism is the theory of that, it has to work
as a theory, not simply as an assertion.

Kant supplied the essential premises to make it
work. These premises lie within the distinction,
and the relation, that Kant draws between noumenon
and phenomenon. For Kant sees freedom in man as
both ground and end; ground, in that, as he says,
freedom is the ratio essendi of morality: end, in that
morality is the ratio cognoscendi of freedom. The
possibility and realisability of a moral social order
is what gives content to freedom, turns it from a
mere absence of instinctual determination to a
freely constructed social system. What is needed
therefore is the materialist equivalent of the concept
of freedom in this Kantian sense.

Therefore, the dismantling of the noumenon/
phenomenon distinction and relation was the demolition of Kant’s solution to empiricism. In empiricism,
the present judges the future. The given world is the’

source of our understanding of possibilities. In Kant,
the materially pos’sible future judged the present,
and specified the action to be taken in it. It is this
fact that re-emphasises my objection to Bent on ‘s
suggestion that it is philosophical faults alone which
led to the post-Kantian rejection of the distinction
and relation. On the contrary, if we take two highly
perceptive post -Kantians who make use of Kant in
entirely contrary ways – Weber, and Durkheim – we
find that it is possible to understand their pessimism
arid conservatism, and opposition to Marxism only
on the basis of tracing their rejection of the Kantian
distinction and relation between noumenon and
phenomenon (34).

I believe also that it can be shown by careful
‘immanent criticism’ (to use an important idea of
Lucio Colletti’s) that a number of modern interpretations of Marxism fail as possible theories of revolutionary socialism, precisely because they have no
materialist equivalent of this concept of freedom,
with its intricate theoretical and practical logic (35).

These are claims, and I am not trying to substantiate them here. But, even if there were no other
reasons for re-evaluating the tradition of Kantian
interpretation, this would surely be more than
enough. But of course, for Kant to be able to grasp
and develop means towards the solution of the
‘educators’ problem must mean that his system of
concepts and arguments has far more than that to
offer us.

(2) I think it is not a trite thing to say that
Marxism is a theory of revolutionary socialism.

34 I have in fact carried out this exercise in detail for both those thinkers.

But space obviously forbids its inclusion here.

35 If we take, as a central example, the Althusserian system, I am struck by
Simon Clarke’S argument (‘Althusser’s Marxism’, circulated in CSE but
so far unpublished) that Althusser is in fact a metaphysical materialist,
returning to Montesquieu, Smith etc. But it is worth recalling that it was
precisely against such that Man directed the Third Thesis; they had not
solved, could not solve, the ‘educators’ problem. Therefore, in a sense,
he is a pre~Kant1an (except that, ironically, his thought owes a heavy debt
to a Hegelian inevitabilism).

36 A Gramsci, Selections from Prison Writings, Lawrence & Wishart, 1971,

As a theory, it must pass critical tests of adequacy;
it must also live in a world of competing theories,
and have much to say about them.

Since Marxism is opposed to all variants of
empiricism, one of whose chief tenets is the preconceptual availability of the world, Marxism needs
a theory of concepts, of understanding. As Gramsci
put it:

An enquiry into a series of facts to discover the
relations between them presupposes a ‘concept’

that permits one to distinguish that series from
another possible series of facts. How can there
take place a choice of facts to be adduced as proof
of the truth of one’s own assumption if one does
not have a pre-existing criterion of choice? But
what is this criterion of choice to be, if not something superior to each single fact under enquiry?

An intuition, a conception which must be regarded
as having a complex history. •• (36)
••• but also as having a logical structure. I think
that one of the lessons from Kant is the requirement
of systematic structure. Marxism as a theory
creates by its central concepts a number of
dilemmas – the compatibility of the following
apparent contradictories, ~d the possibility of
historical movement between them: between determinism and freedom, alienation and self -realisation
ideology and science, etc. As a theory, therefore,’

Marxism needs a structure of concepts that admits
and resolves these contradictories into practical
historical problems. That, it seems to me, is the
unrecovered heritage of Kant.

To conclude in two ways then.

Kant is wrongly
regarded as a fatalist; he regarded freedom not
merely as a Regulative Idea, guilding our penetration of the world of appearance, but also as a
material possibility imposing on us the duty to try
to realise it. He was not a ‘defender of the faith’

(though he was religious); I think in considering his
views here we should recall the extent to which he
was regarded in his own time as atheistically
inclined. But most importantly, the positive point
in his theory of religion was ,that God can have
ascribed to him/her/it only those characteristics
whic.h are derived from our moral life; our perception of God reflects our understanding of
morality, he argued.

Kant did not distinguish fact and value; he worked
theoretically to merge them. He did not produce a
timeless, contentless’ ethic: on the contrary, he
showed the necessity for a substantive concept of
freedom and social morality. More than that, in
his consideration of ‘evil’, he was the first to make
it clear and to integrate the understanding of this
~to his theory, that it is not unnatural, and that it
IS an aspect of human development. (There is no
socialism without capitalism.)
In the light of these and many more points that
deserve bringing out, I believe that it should be
possible to reconstruct, by way of a materialist
critique of this real Kant:

(a) a theory of ideology, which is already implicit
in many of Kant’s comments (notably in the
Critique of Practical Reason);
(b) a theory of science, resolving both logical and
historical dimensions;
(c) a resolution of the apparent shifts within the
theory and practice of Marxism between
inevitablist and voluntarist orientations·
(d) a powerful base for the critique of specifiC
ideological views.


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