For years, for the greater part of my life until now, I had taken consolation in the paradoxical view that whilst I and others might appear to be the passive playthings of forces beyond our control, we had been actively changing the world, it was just that, until we read Marx of course, we did not know we were doing it. We, the people, were always the makers of history but were never free of the objective circumstances that resulted. Instead we are wholly dependent on them and historical necessity is realised spontaneously. Engels expressed the conundrum succinctly:
What each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. (Engels letter to J. Bloch in Königsberg, 1890)
The corollary of this is that struggling against social forces won’t help. What we need instead is conscious management of those forces. Engels certainly took the Spinozist view that freedom means the capacity of people to make decisions founded on cognised necessity, enabling them to control of nature, social relationships and themselves in full consciousness.
Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends.
Of course, consciousness, especially whilst most of those around you remain asleep, is exhilarating. It offers the prospect of joining equally enlightened comrades in a conscious elite who will lead an unconscious and passive majority into newly managed circumstances for the benefit of everyman.
This privileged insight compensated for the fact that, rather than being free of the laws that direct me, be they natural or social, I remained subject to them. The reinvigorated battle cry of materialists down the ages emphasised the perversity of the new passivity - ‘freedom is the recognition of necessity’.
As a Marxist initiate, access to elite knowledge would serve as the consolatory counterweight to the new passivity for many years. After all where might the alternative to my materially derived knowledge originate? From the gods?
Nevertheless, the question stopped me in my tracks. I remember the exact circumstances in which it happened, whilst cycling, on a bend in the lane between Old Weston and Great Gidding in Cambridgeshire. Such was the intensity of the moment, I was literally stopped in my tracks. I paused at a field gate to ponder the question, with the outcome that I resolutely turned against the passivity that I had self-justified for so long.
© John Dunn.