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What did Marx mean by Thesis Eleven?

Published in Theory by Mark Murphy on August 10, 2013

(c) Sebastian Niedlich

Thesis Eleven is the most famous of Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, and goes like this:


The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

As well as being the most famous thesis it is also arguably the most misinterpreted of Marx’s statements generally, up there with ‘Property is theft’ (which was Marx quoting Proudhon, unfavourably). I sometimes get the impression that people who use the phrase have some variant of ‘act first, ask questions later (if at all)’ in their head when they use it. I may be wrong on that assumption (hard to tell), but this is certainly not the meaning intended by Marx when he went to work on Feuerbach and then later Max Stirner in The German Ideology. Instead Marx’s real target was the perceived need (then and now) to deliver some kind of objective philosophical justification/legitimation for engagement with acts of social struggle (against oppression, exploitation, colonialism etc).

An excellent explanation of Marx’s thinking around Thesis Eleven is provided by Cornel West in his book The ethical dimensions of Marxist thought (highly recommended). In the chapter ‘Marx’s adoption of radical historicism’, West argues that Thesis Eleven

was not a rejection of rational dialogue, discourse, or discussion, nor is it a call for blind activism (West, p. 68).

Rather, Thesis Eleven was a statement of Marx’s desire to situate philosophical thinking about social problems within history rather than outside it – Marx, not for the first time, flipping conventional wisdom on its head. Thesis Eleven itself was the inevitable outcome of a process begun earlier in the Theses, most notably in Theses Six & Seven, where Marx made clear his shift from philosophy to radical historicism, or what West refers to as the ‘move from philosophic aims and language to theoretic ones’:

This means that fundamental distinctions such as objectivism/relativism, necessary/arbitrary, or essential/accidental will no longer be viewed through a philosophic lens. That is, no longer will one be concerned with arriving at timeless criteria, necessary grounds, or universal foundations for philosophic objectivity, necessity, or essentiality. Instead, any talk about objectivity, necessity, or essentiality must be under-a-description, hence historically located, socially situated and “a product” of revisable, agreed-upon human conventions which reflect particular needs, social interests, and political powers at a specific moment in history. The task at hand then becomes a theoretic one, namely, providing a concrete social analysis which shows how these needs, interests, and powers shape and hold particular human conventions and in which ways these conventions can be transformed (West, p. 67).

For Marx, theorising social change went hand-in-hand with an understanding of social change as inevitably being ‘under-a-description’ as West puts it (great phrase). Thesis Eleven, then, is the culmination of this thinking, providing a succinct indication of the consequences of the radical historical shift for social struggle, a shift that assumes that

the heightened awareness of the limitations of traditional philosophy will soon render that philosophy barren, a mere blind and empty will-to-nothingness. In its place will thrive a theory of history and society, able to account for its own appearance and status, aware of the paradoxes it cannot solve, grounded in ever changing personal needs and social interests, and beckoning for action in order to overcome certain conditions and realize new conditions. In this way, the radical historicist viewpoint enables Marx to make the philosophic to theoretic shift without bothering his philosophic conscience (West, p. 68).

Marx then went on to have a right go at Max Stirner in The German Ideology (two-thirds of the book were devoted to Stirner’s The ego and its own, itself a partial critique of Marx). A radical historicist vs. a radical psychologist – they don’t make debates like that anymore, do they?

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Mark MurphyMark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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