Mind-Independence and Materialism
A time-honored way to explain materialism, or at least an aspect of materialism, is to say that the world outside of our minds is mind-independent. Unfortunately mind-independence isn't a good way to formulate materialism, since it isn't true, even if that claim is limited to the natural world. Human beings are part of nature and our actions affect the rest of the natural world in various ways. Human actions, however, are affected by our thoughts, beliefs and decisions. Actions result from those decisions, actions that change the world in small or large ways. Thus the natural world is affected by our mental states, although indirectly, via human action.
Mind independence fares much worse with social relations. Almost every human social interaction depends on consciousness to some degree. What action a person performs and how it affects others depends on how the actor and others understand that action. The difference between a clerical error and an attempted fraud, for example, may depend entirely on the mental state of the person composing a letter. Mental states not only affect actions, they are among the constituents of actions.
Social institutions cannot function unless people understand those institutions in certain ways. In fact, most institutions of class society can only continue to function if many people have false beliefs about them. Slavery, Marx wrote, is only possible if most people do not understand it correctly. Capitalist ideology and the apparatus to create and spread it would be useless to capitalists if social institutions were mind-independent.
Maintaining that nature and society are not mind-independent does not mean that idealism is the right view of them. Social relationships do require certain beliefs or mental activities of their participants, but this does not mean that these relations are constituted by thought or thinking. Thought does not constitute class structure or the wage relation, for example, and the effects of individuals thinking differently about these relations changes them only in limited ways. Capitalists are not powerful mainly because they or others think they are. Wages, wealth, social power, etc. can be changed by mass political action, but the thought of a militant strike or revolution is only part of the cause of the actual change. Appropriate institutions°™a union or revolutionary party°™are required in cases like these, as well as physical force.
Thoughts as Effects
The above comments leave out an important ingredient of Marxist materialism, a view about the kind of causal role that ideas have. In the German Ideology, Marx and Engels wrote that the ideas of ruling class are ruling ideas in every epoch. Their view was that this situation was primarily the effect of the power of the dominant class to create wide acceptance of ideas favorable to it. Marx later wrote that this was typical, that social being determines consciousness, not the other way around. Although this formulation suggests that consciousness is only an effect and never a cause of historical development, Marx's other explanations of the role of ideas show that this was not his view. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napolean, Marx argued at length that the illusory "Napoleonic ideas" of the peasantry were a major factor in the 1851 triumph of Louis Napoleon, even though those ideas no longer corresponded to existing social relations.
The Organic Relation of Thought and Being
Marx's concept of an organic relation allows a formulation that incorporates his and Engels various statements about the relation of social relations and social consciousness, namely that social relations are (typically, at least) the dominant side in the dialectical relation between them and social consciousness. This claim about the causal role of ideas or something like it is an important ingredient in Marxist materialism, a claim that ideas normally play a greater role as effects of social relations than as causes of changes in them. This does not mean, however that materialism denies or minimizes the role of ideas or thinking in social relations or the functioning of social institutions. In particular mass political consciousness is indispensible for the creation and the success of mass movements.
Despite the considerations mentioned above, there is still room for a limited kind of mind-independence in materialism. Someone who studies some aspect of society may theorize about her subject matter without her thinking affecting the people, relations, or institutions that she studies. It is the dissemination of her views, not mere thinking, that might affect the people and structures studied. Ideas can affect social relations only if they are taken up by people who may act on them. But this dissemination is a social process powerfully affected by the existing social relations, and not something automatically accomplished by ideas or thinking itself.
January 26, 2012