Idealism is no pretty word

26 April, 2022

Creation of Adam by God. Michelangelo's fresco in the Sistine Chapel.
Creation of Adam by God. Michelangelo's fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

Since school we are taught idealism in every History, Literature, Language or Philosophy lesson, but also in Mathematics and even in Science. To be called “idealistic” is considered a positive thing. And yet, idealism is a framework that has been present in the worldview of the exploiting classes for thousands of years. And of course, “idealism” is far from being a pretty word.

Table of Contents

What is idealism?

Idealism is a set of philosophical positions based on the understanding that “ideas”, immaterial concepts, are the generators -in different degrees and forms- of material reality.

It sounds outrageous and it is, but it surrounds us on a daily basis through the most common forms of ideology. This is what we are taught at school when we are presented with the History of Humanity as a “history of ideas”. We are told that great technological and social changes ” happen ” because of the impact of ” ideas ” that ” occur ” to a series of thinkers over time.

Needless to say, historical reality tells us otherwise. For example, wars of religion were not the product of the new ideas of religious reformers, but rather these ideas, apparently circumscribed to theological debate, arose precisely because there were previous material conflicts between social classes which brought them into being and encouraged armed conflicts.

Or that the industrial revolution was not the product of the invention of the steam engine or of “liberal ideas” but rather of changes in the social structure that enabled the use of technologies that already existed -such as steam- by a new class -the industrial bourgeoisie- which soon generated ideas and spokesmen tailored to its needs.

But idealism is not only a way of understanding human history. It is also reflected in the political arguments of daily use in the media when war is presented to us as the result of a “confrontation of ideologies” or when we are encouraged to change the language and adopt “inclusive language” as a way of “fighting” against the discrimination against women. It is true that ideology conditions reality to a certain extent, but it is obvious that it is not the cause of the “current state of affairs” and neither is it the driving force behind its conflicts and transformations.

This is why it is all the more shocking when idealism reaches the point of confusing desire with reality or thinking that desire can configure reality only through “will”. We have seen ample examples of this in the management and reactions of certain social groups to the pandemic, and it is the basis of the discourse on “consumer sovereignty” and “responsible consumption”.

At the limit, idealism ends up in a more or less openly creationist conception of natural history. The universe itself would be the product of a previous “idea”, which may or may not be endowed with self-consciousness and the capacity to intervene into – or to have predicted ex ante and therefore “desired” – human history: be it the Aristotelian “ultimate cause”, the god of the old monotheistic religions, the Baroque “universal watchmaker” or any of its current variations, present even in the cosmogonies in vogue among theoretical physicists.

Why has materialist thought been, and still continues to be, marginal?

Scene from the second congress of the League of Communists - the first in which Marx and Engels participated - according to an illustration of the time.
Scene from the second congress of the League of Communists – the first in which Marx and Engels participated – according to an illustration of the time.

Idealism has been the basis of the dominant ideology ever since society was split into classes.

Since then there have been some historical moments in which a few isolated materialist authors have appeared, against the tide and always persecuted by the dominant system at the time. A system that, logically, defended the prevailing state against the “libertine ideas” of a Machiavelli or a Spinoza.

During its rise, the bourgeoisie itself encouraged these thinkers at times, but as soon as it took political power, it quickly forgot its materialist flirtations of youth, it left aside even the toothless materialism of a Feuerbach and returned to the ways of a more or less “pragmatic” and empiricist idealism. Up to the present day, when its mechanical and idealistic conception of the world is already a brake on scientific development itself.

Beyond isolated thinkers, in all these centuries there have been only two movements of a certain scale that have made materialism the basis of their conception of the world: epicureanism during antiquity and communism during capitalism.

This is obviously no coincidence: idealism corresponds to the worldview of an exploiting class while communism is the expression of the first exploited class which is at the same time the revolutionary class of a mode of production.

So how was it possible for the Epicureans to be materialists in the midst of slavery-run societies?

Usually insulted as 'hedonistic pigs', the Epicureans turned the piglet into a symbol of their communities. Lucretius defined himself as a piglet of the herd of Epicurus'.
Usually insulted as “hedonistic pigs”, the Epicureans turned the piglet into a symbol of their communities. Lucretius defined himself as “a piglet of Epicurus’ herd”.

For their part, the Epicureans, a communalist movement that flourished between the 4th century B.C. and the 3rd century CE, represent a particular form of social “separatism”. Marginal by definition, they were the expression of the unease of the lower strata of the free classes in the face of the decomposition of the democratic polis, they did not acknowledge differences of class or origin (barbarians vs. Greeks) and disavowed the sexual division of labor, which they tried to eliminate from their internal organization.

Unlike the Pythagoreans, they did not follow a rigid hierarchical structure nor did they intend to take power in the polis they inhabited; on the contrary, they denounced politics in the Greek polis and what it entailed -the struggle for posts and state positions- as a potential dissolver of communal fraternity (friendship) from which they decided to stay away.

Their bet consisted in living and working collectively in more or less secluded orchards, accepting the inevitable scarcity of their supply, given the productive capacities they had, preaching that everything they needed was attainable through communal work, that hunger and pain were temporary and that with these meager material bases they could achieve “eudaimonia”, the independence of judgment that allowed a truly free (happy) life outside the enslaving society from which they came.

A eudaimonia that required something else: to accept the ineffectiveness of the gods in the real world and the affirmation of a strictly materialistic but not completely deterministic world, since total determinism implies accepting that there is a predetermined destiny, a belief that in the end is as oppressive and idealistic as the acceptance of creator gods.

Harassed and reviled for centuries, in order not to fall into the much persecuted -because it was anti-state- crime of atheism, they affirmed that gods existed… but outside the cognizable universes and that in any case if they were eternal they were also inert and immobile…. which in turn allowed them not to condemn their worship -which would also have been persecuted as antisocial atheism- affirming that the Greek worship of the gods did not benefit the gods, but those who honored them because in fact in doing so they honored eudaimonia, the sovereignty and self-control that corresponds to such impassible and inert beings.

This movement, marginal but certainly numerous, came to affirm, without knowing how to trace a path that otherwise would have been incomprehensible at the time, that society would once again become a classless community in which:

There will be no need for walls or laws or all that we set up for the protection of one against the other. As for the necessary sustenance of agriculture, since there will then be no slaves, we ourselves will wield the plow and open the furrows and see to the crops, divert the rivers and reap the harvest.

Portico of Oenoanda, 2nd century CE

Evidently, it is not the view of a ruling class. As a product of a society and an epoch with insufficient productive capacities to organize a society of abundance, its internal communalism never went beyond affirming the desirability of communism and a certain possibility in an indeterminate future. It could not be otherwise during their era.

Although they were numerous and for centuries maintained communities throughout the Mediterranean, they were a segregated, marginal and almost universally rejected movement, which had separated itself of its own free will from a social and political life it repudiated.

Their particular situation, voluntarily “separated” from the productive – and therefore class – structure of their time, explains why they were able to maintain a fundamentally materialistic vision. Although in their decline, already during the end of the Roman Republican era, when many Epicurean communities in the Italic peninsula came to depend on aristocratic patrons and donors, their thought inevitably gave way and drifted into otherwise inevitable idealistic concessions.

And yet it was a poet, Lucretius, possibly formed in one of these “degenerate” communities, the villa of the papyri led by Philodemus of Gadara, who left us the last great monument of ancient materialism: the “De rerum natura” (lit. “On the nature of things”).

Why are the exploiting classes idealistic?

Egyptian mural: the ruling class
Egyptian mural: the ruling class “creates wealth” by setting goals and organizing the social work (of the exploited).

How do the ruling classes view the world?

When they “see” something, when their desire is articulated as an order, is when it begins to exist. What follows are “resources” – human labor, raw materials, etc. – that are put in place to “realize” their “ideas” according to the rights to exploit the labor of others that they have at their disposal.

It is not by chance that since antiquity they have imagined the creation of the world by a god or a thaumaturge who enunciates a “let there be”. The divine “verb” creates the world in the same way that the command of the members of the exploiting class directs and sets goals for social labor.

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Under each system of exploitation this right of the ruling class to exploit the labor of others is guaranteed by a concrete social relation: in capitalism by the ownership of capital, an institution that can be understood in itself as a right of exploitation; in the feudal system, by the obligations to render labor and deliver part of the production that defined serfdom; when society was based on slavery by the pure and simple ownership of the greater part of the working class, that is, the slaves; and in the asiatic mode by the obligations of collective labor.

For the exploiting classes of all modes of production based on the division of society into classes, “the idea” “naturally” directs social labor. The “idea” generates reality, social work is a mere resource, one more tool at the service of this “creative will”.

How could they be anything but idealistic and project themselves as gods, creators of universes? Idealism is the direct product of the division between manual and intellectual labor which accompanies the fracture of society into classes, an inevitable result of the alienation of human beings with respect to their own collective transformative capacity (work, in our time reduced to wage labor) and with respect to Nature of which we are a part.

That is to say, idealism is a result of what makes our species alien to itself.

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