Chapter 5: Transcendence According to Marx

Encounter in Humanization: Insights for Christian-Marxist Dialogue and Cooperation
by Paulose Mar Paulose

Chapter 5: Transcendence According to Marx

From our discussion so far one thing is clear: the crucial point and the very essence of Marx’s critique of religion is not its denial of God, but the affirmation and acknowledgment of human autonomy. The basis of religious belief that human beings are God’s creatures are countered by the thesis that they are their own makers. This is the source of the Marxist picture of history and of human being, with all its political and moral consequences. This critique of religion, and the element of atheism implied in it, is therefore an integral part of Marxist conception of the world.

Marx criticizes that the idea of God, the Creator God, bars the human person’s endless future and impoverishes the person’s perspectives, endeavours, and struggles. He emphasizes that human creativity cannot reach its potential in God, that is, outside the human. He does not accept the Christian conception of human being which begins and ends with God, the source of all human actuality and potentiality. Viewed in this way, for Marx, God is the end of the possibilities which are the breath of our being. Thus we can say that Marx’s critique of religion is not primarily and essentially a revolt against God, but rather a struggle on behalf of the human beings in all of their personal needs and social relations. As it was pointed out by Olof Klohr of Jena, "The atheism of Marxism is, in essence, not the ‘No’ to religion and God, but the ‘Yes’ to the world, the ‘Yes’ to the conscious formation of human life."1 Marx is not out to get rid of God; he is to free human beings -- not to free from God but from themselves and from their enslavement to religion, which is their own creation. It is not God but the belief in God which must go, if human beings are to be free.

Thus at least theoretically Marx does not see the destruction of religion as an important aim. The disappearance of religion will be the normal outcome of a rational thinking and rational living. Mans ultimate task, as Marx sees it, is self-creation which man accomplishes by creating a world. The world which the human being thus creates is so rich that there is no room left in it for belief in anything but human. It is a world in which authentic humanity is guaranteed and gradually achieved in the material, moral, cultural and intellectual spheres. The primary aim of Marx’s critique of religion and his atheistic position is the realization of the positive factor of transcendence.

According to Marx, transcendence means not only abolishing the dehumanizing conditions of human life but also preserving the true essence of the human person and shaping the person’s own destiny by going beyond the given. This, of course, fits with the literal meaning of the word ‘transcend’ -- to rise above’ or ‘to go beyond the limits.

Marxist philosopher Jaroslav Krejci defines transcendence as "consisting essentially in endeavours and activities aimed at going beyond the given reality, the world as it is, overcoming it practically, conceptually and ideologically."2 It is in this sense Marx employs the term transcendence, because transcendence perpetually opens the way for the future. However, he does not regard this opening of a new future as an incursion of the divine into human history, as in religion. Marx conceives transcendence as dynamic human reality, as a self-transcending formation of the meaning and values of our life, as an active, real, and not merely theoretical, crossing of the frontiers of human power, freedom, culture and perspectives. By transcendence Marx means the movement of the living and humanly experienced present into the future. This transcendence which is the human person’s openness to what is to come, unlimited openness, is in Marxism a human project in a definite historical situation, a human choice to remain open to the future as limitless human dimension, an absence of any final boundary. This choice and project form the content of the present fight for the future, including the political struggle. The concept of transcendence has so far not been sufficiently elaborated theoretically in Marxist philosophy. The primary reason for this lack of interest is that Marx himself did not systematically develop the concept of transcendence per se, though it was fundamental to his thought and lifework. Secondly, many Marxists have often been reluctant to use the term, for the term transcendence poses certain problems. Traditionally the notion of transcendence is related to belief in a world beyond, and it has some irrational and supernatural connotations. In religion, for example, according to Marxists, transcendence denotes the illusion of an absolute and static plenitude of moral ideals, justice, freedom, love, etc. But for Marxists, transcendence is the actual human experience that the human person, though belonging to nature, is different from the things and animals and that the human being, able to progress always, is never complete.

This claim to transcendence is crucial to the understanding of Marx’s critique of religion. Since Marx himself has not developed it, we shall examine this important concept by using an indirect method by means of the study of Marx’s humanism. By humanism Marx means the doctrine that affirms the value and dignity of the human being. It takes on a more precise meaning in as much as it affirms that man is an end in himself, and that he consequently rejects any form of servitude that would reduce him to a means at the hands of an owner. The decisive productive force of history is the human person at work in all the spheres of creative activity: in production, discovery, invention, artistic creation, political and moral decisions. This is why Marx says that the driving force of history is within history itself. History is not made from outside, neither by a destiny such as Greek thought posited, nor by a providence extrinsic to human activity, nor by Hegel’s "Absolute Spirit". Marx valued more highly than anything else the initiative of human beings in history. In "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" Marx stresses this point: "Men make their own history".3 Man is always something other and something more than the sum of the conditions which have produced him. This is what distinguishes him from other kinds of animals. Otherwise we should be relegated to an existence determined solely by instinct. Echoing the Italian philosopher Vico, Marx pointed out that man was not responsible for evolution of nature but for his own history.4

Marx also believed that the advent of real man is the goal of history, which can be attained only by revolutionary action. But, what is this "real man"? First of all, he is a man related to nature. Nature is man’s proper context. Nature and man interact; nature produces man but man produces nature by his labour. As Marx phrased it, "History itself is a real part of natural history -- of nature developing into man."5 Human history is the story of man’s humanizing nature, or, to put it in another way, in man nature becomes human. If man is abstracted from his context, both he and his context are destroyed.

Secondly, human being is a socially active natural being, and not just natural being as such. The history of human being in nature is properly realized only in the case of social human being. Here is where nature and human being are united by society. As Marx put it, "My own existence is social activity, and therefore that which I make of myself, I make of myself for society and with the consciousness of myself as a social being."6 It is the concrete web of relations which is actualized in human social existence.

Thirdly, human self-consciousness (in social activity) is seen as the theoretical form of that being whose living form is the community. The spiritual faculties and intellectual operations of human beings are simply the theoretical expressions of their real being. Any abstraction from this reality -- human being as a homeless spirit, as animal, as a kind of god, etc. --does not refer to real human being at all. Marx does not deny that human beings are, of course, individuals. They do think individual thoughts. Human beings are born and they die as individuals. But the use of the term human as opposed, say, to animal, is to man as he is "the subjective existence of thought and experienced society for itself". Man is what he is concretely: in society and in nature. This is his uniqueness and dignity.

This portrait of man is the basis of Marx’s humanism. Any form of social structure that negates this man must itself be negated. Since man was, and is, the maker of himself, since he alone makes history, he bears full responsibility for what becomes of him and history. Marx contends that the liberty of man is not yet an accomplished fact. Man is deprived of liberty, enslaved and made an instrument. In other words, man is alienated. Alienation is defined with reference to the ideal, complete man, as he ought to be, man as free. Man is alienated means, more precisely the following: (a) He is not what he ought to be (privation), (b) There is lacking in him something of his very self (mutilation), (c) He is estranged from himself and from reality (estrangement), (d) He identifies himself psychologically with an imaginary existence which becomes a substitute for reality (identification), (e) He is torn by a conflict between his real essence and his ideal essence (contradiction), (f) He is reduced to a means, to slavery (enslavement).7 The process of overcoming alienation is the process through which man becomes what he ought to be, attains his ideal essence, seeks and again finds himself, repossesses that part of himself which had been seized from him, resolves the contradiction within him and reaches liberty. It is this unceasing process which Marx calls ‘transcendence’.

In The Holy Family Marx wrote that the proletariat

cannot free itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation.8

Abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life in society, and thus humanizing the relation to the material world and nature, the human person will transcend all forms of alienation. Religion and state are only partial expressions of the one fundamental alienation of the human being from nature and are bound to disappear simultaneously with their cause. But a religious or political emancipation alone can never liberate human beings. The religious critique merely fights the consciousness of alienation and leaves the roots of alienation intact. The mistake lies in the assumption that ideas are independent of the social conditions of action and, consequently, that they can be changed without changing the conditions which produced them. This is what Marx means when he criticizes the atheism of his time: "Communism begins from the outset... with atheism, but atheism is at first far from being communism; indeed, it is still mostly an abstraction."9 The same holds true for the political critique. Not political reforms but only a reintegration of man with nature can return him to his true essence. The key factor to the reintegration of man with nature is labour. Labour is the factor which mediates between man and nature; labour is man’s efforts to regulate his metabolism with nature. Labour is the expression of human life and through labour human relationship to nature is changed, hence through labour human beings change themselves.

The re-integration of human being with nature will also restore the bond between the human being and fellow human beings, for the humanization of nature is essentially a social task. "Activity and mind, both in their content and in their mode of existence, are social: social activity and social mind."10

The adjective ‘social’ refers not just to work done in immediate cooperation with others. Even the lonely task of the scientist is social, for the material on which he works as well as his personal life are products of the community. His consciousness is "the theoretical shape of that which the living shape is the real community"11 There is a mutual causality between the human person and society. The society which the human being creates through work will in turn create the human being. "Just as society itself produces man as man, so is society produced by him."12 "Thus society is the unity of being of man with nature -- the true resurrection of nature."13

According to Marx, communism strives for such a society, and hence he describes communism as "the positive transcendence of private property,... the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man;... 14 Most communist theories suppress private property by making it into common property. But such a solution still maintains the basic principle of private property: it considers material possession and not man’s self-realization as the aim of labour. Marx criticized this kind of crude communism in these words:

In negating the personality of man in every sphere, this type of communism is really nothing but the logical expression of private property, which is its negation. General envy constituting itself as a power is the disguise in which greed re-establishes itself and satisfies itself, only in another way. The thought of every piece of private property -- inherent in each piece as such -- is at least turned against all wealthier private property in the form of envy and the urge to reduce things to a common level, so that this envy and urge even constitute the essence of competition. The crude communism is only the culmination of this envy and of this leveling down proceeding from the preconceived minimum. It has a definite, limited standard. How little this annulment of private property is really an appropriation is in fact proved by the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilization, the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and undemanding man who has not only failed to go beyond private property, but has not yet even reached it.15

Private property should be suppressed not by making it common property, but by abolishing the alienation itself of which it is the expression. Through this positive transcendence of private property, the object of man’s activity again becomes a human object. Man appropriates the world in a human way: his relation to it is no longer a means to an end outside himself but an expression of his entire being, in which he objectifies himself without losing himself. Nature becomes human and man becomes natural.

Man’s objectification of himself in nature creates a genuine culture when he uses nature in a truly human way. When man’s relationship with nature is truly humanized by the transcendence of private property, Marx believed, all expressions of estranged human life will disappear.

In religion, the content of transcendence is God, the transcendent future is the power of God which comes to humanity and evokes a response. But Marx denies any sort of superhuman transcendence. He is reluctant to identify transcendence with God because he understands the absoluteness of God to function as a limit, a restraint upon the otherwise unlimited field of human possibilities. Dependence on a transcendent God and full human autonomy are incompatible:

A being only considers himself independent when he stands on his own feet; and he only stands on his own feet when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the grace of another regards himself as a dependent being. But I live completely by the grace of another if I owe him not only the maintenance of my life, but if he has, moreover, created my life -- if he is the source of my life. When it is not of my own creation, my life has necessarily a source of this kind outside of it.16

Echoing Aristotle, Marx says:

You have been begotten by your father and your mother; therefore in you the mating of two human beings -- a species-act of human being -- has produced the human being. You see, therefore, that even physically, man owes his existence to man.17

Thus the question of creation cannot even arise for Marx, because it conflicts with praxis.

We shall elucidate Marx’s concept of transcendence with reference to one of the leading Marxist thinkers of our time. Roger Garaudy, who is well known for his sympathetic attitude towards religion, has pointed out that religion may have some practical justification:

Like every ideology, religion is a project, it is a way of breaking away from, transcending the given, of anticipating the real, whether by justifying the existing order or by protesting against it and attempting to transform it.18

But this does not change Garaudy’s position on religion as a whole, for this transcendence must always remain within the immanence of human possibilities. According to him, "transcendence is no longer an attribute of God but a dimension of man, a dimension of our experience and our acts."19 It is a totally human phenomenon, a "dialectical supersession" of man by himself.20

Thus the difference between religious (to be more precise, Christian) and Marxist concepts of transcendence is this:

For a Christian, transcendence is the act of God who comes towards him and summons him. For a Marxist, it is a dimension of man’s activity which goes out beyond itself towards its far-off being.21

Garaudy asserts that any attempt to refer transcendence to an absolute, to God, would be to limit man by imposing an antiquated worldview on him. To the Marxist, transcendence is actually a demand, an exigency, a driving force, but a force that cannot be conceived, named, or expected. As Garaudy put it:

To investigate the dimension of transcendence, conceived not as an attribute to God but as a dimension of man, is not to start from something which exists in our world in a vain attempt to prove the existence of what can exist only in another world; it is simply to investigate all the dimensions of human reality.22

The human being is an incomplete being, a creature in the process of formation. The goal of this self-creation is an ever fuller social consciousness, a more complete social integration, and an absolute domination of the physical world. In other words, the exigency of which Garaudy speaks is future oriented -- it is the demand for an ever more complete realization of the potential of human persons.

Here, then, is the sum and substance of Marx’s concept of transcendence: The moment, nature gave birth to man by a "spontaneous generation", it became essentially related to him, to be humanized by his free activity. Nature and man are no longer two powers in opposition to one another, but two terms of one relation. Through a vital interplay with nature man makes himself. Unlike other animals which are passively determined by their material environment he actively transforms nature and adopts it to his own needs. Thus man rises over all other animal species and begins an historical evolution. Here we have a qualitative leap, a real outgrowing, a transcendence in the strictly etymological sense of the term. The future to which he is moving is completely open to man. He shapes the universe and his own destiny, and thus he is not any more the object of history but its subject and agent. It is this possibility, which enables man to move towards the future along an original road that the animal was incapable of knowing -- the road that entails freedom and choice -- what Marx calls Aufhebung, which we might translate ‘transcendence’ in the strictly etymological sense of the term.



1. Cited by Erwin Hinz, "Toward a New Interpretation of Religion and Atheism in the Secular Society", Lutheran World, Vol. 13,1966, p. 379.

2. Jaroslav Krejci, "A New Model of Scientific Atheism", Concurrence, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1969, p. 87.

3. Marx & Engels: Selected Works, op. cit., p. 97.

4. Ibid., p. 372 note.

5. Manuscripts, op. cit., p. 143.

6. Ibid.

7 Cf. Giulio Girardi, Marxism & Christianity, trans. by Kevin Traynor (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1968), p. 23

8. Marx & Engels, The Holy Family, op. cit., p.52.

9. Manuscripts, op. cit., p.136.

10. Ibid., p. 137

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., p. 135. By "private property Marx does not mean the private property of things for use such as furniture, automobile, etc., but the property of the "propertied class" (capitalists). Since they own the means of production, they hire the property-less individual to work for them, under conditions the latter is forced to accept. Thus the property-less individual is reduced to a means of production. Hence "private property" is considered here as an expression of human self-alienation.

15. Ibid., p. 133f.

16. Ibid., p. 144.

17. Ibid.

18. Roger Garaudy, From Anathema to Dialogue, trans. by Luke O’Neill (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), p. 76.

19. Ibid., p. 46.

20. Cf. Roger Garaudy, Marxism in the Twentieth Century, trans. by Rene Hague (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), p. 209.

21. Garaudy Anathema to Dialogue, p.92

22. Garaudy, Marxism in the Twentieth Century, op. cit., p. 104.