Idealism, Materialism, and The Two Sides of Marxism

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

—Martin Luther King Jr.

“Stumbling is not falling.”

—Malcolm X

“In contrast to idealism, whose problem is how to explain temporal finite reality if our starting point is the eternal order of Ideas, materialism’s problem is how to explain the rise of an eternal Idea out of the activity of people caught in a finite historical situation.”

—Slavoj Zizek

The debate now dividing the left-over Zizek is a much more productive one than the Force The Vote debate taking up space just weeks ago. Unlike Force The Vote where people without healthcare are needlessly accusing each other of secretly being against healthcare we are confronted with a debate over the merits of materialism and idealism.

The contradiction between idealism and materialism is that no material reality can be changed without an ideal inspiring that change. Likewise no ideal can arise without a change in material reality.

However what matters as human beings is how we perceive radical social change happening, not how it actually happens. Like Zizek I would argue for a certain kind of Marxism, one which Marx and Marxists often leave behind in the name of material progress.

The left follows Karl Marx’s lead in speaking for the unspoken for. Marx speaks for the workers who materially create society and sees them as the agents of change within it. However, we would be wrong to assume that any change in society really comes from the various modes of production rather than from the idealism of the people themselves.

Changes in capitalist production do indeed come from those alienated technological material movements but only the idealism of the human mind can get us out. Even if there is such a thing as historical materialism, our future must not be determined by materialism.

There is no waiting for the right revolutionary moment. Even worse would be to accelerate such a moment at the expense of democracy and the people. If one cannot wait and one cannot accelerate then there must only be one option: to slow it down.

This is not a conservative statement. Far from. Capitalism is constantly revolutionizing production at the expense of people and the planet. Many Marxists see such technological progress as an opportunity. In reality it has made the planet unlivable. The real revolutionaries of today are the environmentalists who stop production rather than make it more efficient. Such people are coldly eliminated and barely noticed even by the left or liberals.

Materialism has always been a destructive idea and it stands no chance against the superstition of humanity who knows the game is rigged even if the details are wrong. The worst side of Marxism is one that reads into some of the most brutal governments of today a kind of third world revolution simply because they kill brown people instead of white ones. Such brutality is justified as a sort of ironic nationalism where any number of poor people across the world can be sacrificed for the eternal goal of bringing down Western Civilization.

Many of these governments only need to mention the word capitalism and the left jumps to their defense against radical environmentalists who are disappeared. The same or worse happens within those governments that praise capitalism, especially in the United States. But the question of another mode of materialist production while ultimately necessary leaves aside an initial step.

Every attempt to reform capitalism has resulted in an increase of the power of state capitalism and its capacities to run society through technology. However at the same time every step to rush to overcome the contradiction of capitalism has eventually led to the same thing. This does not mean that lessons cannot be learned from attempts. But it does bring to mind Buzz Lightyear’s problem in Toy Story.

Buzz was a toy and therefore he could not fly like he thought he could based on capitalist commercials. Eventually, he embraced “falling with style” where he still eventually hit the ground but he did it with flair. The point was not that he tricked others that he could fly or even that he could trick himself. The point was that he fell in the best way possible. He failed on his own terms and to the best of his abilities. Likewise Marxists should assume failure and attempt to fail in the best way.

Such is life and failure to accept that we all fail only leads to violence and lies. The worst of Marxism tries to overcome contraction and looks to utopia in the worker because they are exploited. The best of Marxism takes Zizek’s belief about the coming of a new year seriously: “Don’t worry there will be more problems next year”.

I still haven’t addressed why we need idealism over materialism. We need idealism because that is how we perceive reality. Sure there is a real reality out there. I certainly accept that. But we don’t know it nor should we want to. We should be aware only of how the world appears to exist. This cannot be absolutely achieved by science but it can be relatively achieved. Science is a friend, not an enemy.

Yet it tells us of nothing certain except for our own perception. We must assume that this is false but also that is more true than our previous thought. We must accept this failure and act on what we appear to know with an open mind to changes.

The problem with materialism is that it naturalizes the human subject. Human beings are seen as having interests determined by changes in material production rather than our own. Even if this is true it must be rejected. Human life is a struggle against such forces. We struggle for our freedom to create our own reality against those forces determining it.

Human freedom comes from this possibility. This openness to change appears impossible under said materialist conditions. We must assume that it is only through our own false perception of a hopeless material situation that the world cannot change, not because this hopeless condition actually exists. It may be so that the hopeless condition exists but we will not know until we try to overcome it. Even then we will not know but we will be closer to not only knowledge but also liberation if we do.

So my problem with the claim that Zizek is not Marxist enough comes from this line of thinking. It may well be material conditions that oppress us but it is not material conditions that will liberate us. We absolutely need human superstition to overcome material boundaries. If we simply acted on what we knew we would have already given up.

Marx was right to expand what we thought of as the human subject. The proletariat does determine history. But we cannot use this orientation to limit the proletariat’s impact to proletarian values of production. So-called bourgeois values must be made by the proletariat just as bourgeois society was produced by its labor. The same can be said of Mother Earth. She does produce wealth but this is from violence upon her. This is not her value. It is our value at the expense of her.

What is this bourgeois value? Human freedom to use idealism to determine martial reality. Nothing could be further from this value then to assert that material society creates the subjects known as human beings. Rather human beings create our own material reality through the idealistic struggle to assert our freedom.

Such a belief in this freedom is naive but this is always why I argue all children should be able to vote and participate in democratic society generally. Nothing changes until naive people ask why something is the way it is. Once you know (or think you know) how something is you become too cynical to even try to change it. The only reason we can’t change society for the better is that all of us individually have accepted we cannot change it. We all know that if each and every one of us decided to change society we easily could. But we assume the worst of each other and we refuse to unite.

Let us assert that the power to change comes from us and if we created this beautiful nonsense of industrial capitalism we can create a way out of it. Ironically then the title of David Sirota’s “Don’t Look Up” can be our real slogan. By refusing to believe in our own limits we can supernaturally overcome them.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at