At its core, Fichte’s argument in defense of vocational specialization arises from the law of absolute self-harmony—the complete dissolution of distinctions between man’s empirical I and his pure I: his essential, spiritual being. The pure I can only appear in man’s consciousness through an empirical realization, through the perception of that outside the self, which Fichte calls the not-I. The not-I, foundationally, is defined by its multiplicity. Because the pure I is concentrated in a single being and can only be integrated into consciousness as the full negation of the not-I, it must be characterized by its absolute unity. Thus, the law of self-harmony is born: man ought to strive for unity in his empirical I in order to bring his pure I into consciousness. In practical terms, this law demands that for the approximation of the identity between the bifurcated I’s, man must determine himself through the subordination of nature, the chief force that molds the empirical I. This subordination is a result of the struggle between the nature that surrounds man and the talents, born from reason, which he wields against it. Thus, Fichte articulates that the law of self-harmony “demands that all of an individual's talents ought to be developed equally, developed to the highest possible degree of perfection” (Fichte 163).
For Marx, no such observation of man in isolation lies in the realm of legitimate philosophical investigation. Men “begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their own means of subsistence,” and can “create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world” (Marx 72, 150). Because man only differentiates himself from other creatures in the realm of the external world, and Fichte does not bestow upon animals the concept of the pure I, then the pure I—for Marx—cannot exist as a category, due to Fichte’s definition of it as something separate from the material world. Fichte claims that when a man is born, a pure I is formed; Marx says that there exists no such I that is not a consequence of man’s activity in the sensuous realm: the ‘what’ of man results from production—the exercise of his life-activity upon a nature from which he is inseparable. So, the Fichtean pure I, on Marx’s terms, cannot exist as an isolated element.
However, not all that is Fichtean so violently clashes with Marxism. Some contradictions come in lighter shades: Fichte argues, “what we call ‘individuals,’ as well as their particular empirical individual nature, is determined by the different ways in which nature acts upon them,” (Fichte 162). At a glance, this is a Marxist-materialist critique. Yet, it closely mirrors what Marx identified as Feuerbach’s primary shortcoming: “the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity,” (Marx 143). This stripping away of the subjective orientation of materialism lays the foundation for Fichte’s most consequential flaw. He attempts to escape the grasp of nature through wielding the power of free reason: “for before we can freely resist nature’s influence upon us, we must have become conscious of our freedom and be able to use it” (Fichte 162). This betrays a significant irreconcilability between Fichtean thought and Marxism: Fichte believes that once nature no longer acts with full force on the object of sensuousness, man will achieve absolute identity; Marx staunchly retorts that there is no consciousness—or man—without nature, “that nature is [man’s] body, with which he must remain in continuous intercourse if he is not to die. That man's physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature,” (Marx 75).
Fichte’s investigation proceeds from the law of self-harmony for man as such to the law applied to society at large: “all of the various rational beings ought to be cultivated or educated equally” (Fichte 163). A firm grasp of Fichte’s concept of drives is necessary to understand how the laws of practical reason can yield such an outcome. When Fichte refers to the formation of drives, he is alluding to a process by which practical “laws [become] present to consciousness in the form of drives,” which are awakened and developed by experience (Fichte 162). Of these drives, the most powerful is often the two-fold social drive, which consists of the drive to cultivate others according to ourselves and to be cultivated by others according to themselves (Fichte 163-164). That any consciousness—as is found in Fichtean drives—can even exist before the social fact, so to speak, must be outright rejected from a Marxist perspective: “language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists also for other men . . . language, like consciousness only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men” (Marx 158). Marx theorizes, “man’s consciousness of the necessity of associating with the individuals around him is the beginning of the consciousness that he is living in a society at all,” revealing that a conscious man is necessarily a man already in society (Marx 158). Nonetheless, both thinkers agree that once man is conceived of as existing in society, consciousness is modified socially, and that a conscious man who does not deny himself is by definition a social creature.
Neither philosopher contradicts the claim that man tends towards social organization. What follows from this conglomeration of men? For Fichte, “nature develops everyone one-sidedly,” and reason “[sees] to it that every individual obtains indirectly from the hands of society that complete education which he could not obtain directly from nature,” (Fichte 164). Thus, society ought to be an equalizer of natural inequality. In carrying out this function, society advances self-harmony, as described above. Marx’s view is unequivocally opposed to any such adherence to idealistic doctrines and instead speaks of the necessity of society in overcoming a natural religion in which nature is “a completely alien, all-powerful, and unassailable force,” (Marx 158). From this necessary organization, a herd consciousness is formed, which “receives its further development and extension through increased productivity, the increase of needs, . . . the increase of population” (Marx 158). From these conditions, there is a spontaneous division of labor that comes to fruition “‘naturally’ by virtue of natural predisposition” (Marx 158). In this way, Marx and Fichte arrive at similar conclusions about the formation of society: one way or another, societal structures arise in response to the randomness of nature such that individuals in said society will be naturally unequal, but will see this inequality stripped of its worst consequences by social contact. Marx has only shown how the division of labor naturally arises at a stage where “nature is hardly modified historically,” so we cannot yet glean the implications of the division of labor, or as Fichte puts it—the difference between classes—in these thinkers’ contemporary context (Marx 158).
After establishing the fundamental role of society in serving as a vehicle for self-harmony, Fichte extols the virtue of society, which “now joins together and assumes joint responsibility: what the individual could not accomplish by himself can be accomplished by the united strength of all,” (Fichte 164). Because of this, man has a debt to society. Nature is molded to his needs, and he need not wrestle against it alone. Furthermore, because man’s education is produced by society, he has a moral obligation to use it to advance it. According to Fichte, “there are two ways in which he may attempt to do this . . . he can try to cultivate every aspect of nature by himself [or] he can seize upon some particular speciality . . . and dedicate himself exclusively to it,” (Fichte 167). Of these two choices, Fichte sees selecting a specific speciality as the only way to meaningfully contribute to society; the other option leads to superfluous efforts and ‘lost’ life in the context of the history of mankind. The Marxist framework meshes with this analysis in two salient ways. First, Marx writes: “[a]t each stage [of historical development] there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, a historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor,” (Marx 164). In this way, both Marx and Fichte come to understand that which gives us our ability to modify nature to our needs as something created over various generations of the species.
However, Marx does not make a moral ruling on this as Fichte does. Marx, unlike Fichte, is not a moral philosopher, so he would reject the argument of indebtedness to society that Fichte puts forth. Secondly, Marx recognizes that “each new productive force . . . causes a further development of the division of labour,” demonstrating that vocational specialization is indeed a measure of the capacity of production of a given society—that is, as Fichte would have it, the subordination of nature to reason (Marx 150).
To reduce Marx’s view of the division of labor to such a reductive idea, however, is a disservice to Marxism. In The German Ideology, Marx famously declares,
[T]he division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily . . . divided, man's own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood (Marx 160).
This ostensibly contradicts Fichte’s argument and the previous positive connotation of the division of labor as a measure of the development of society. Is Marx therefore against the division of labor in general? Marx is only opposed to a spontaneous, haphazard division of labor. He is critical of a division of labor that with the anarchy of production reproduces itself at an intractable speed; one which develops “very empirical fetters and limitations, within which the mode of production of life and the form of intercourse coupled with it move,” (Marx 160). He derides that which creates an untraversable chasm between mental and material labor; which perpetuates private property, allowing for the disposing of the labor-power of one by another; which “implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual . . . and the communal interest” and does nothing to combat the “slavery latent in the family” (Marx 159). Marx believes that another mode of production that incorporates the division of labor to some extent is possible: “in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner,” (Marx 160). Here, a division of labor is still implied; one cannot live solely off of only hunting and fishing in a society which regulates general production at a modern industrial scale. Still, the choice of class is left to the individual’s discretion. His occupation is transmuted to a vocation, his estranged labor to something within his dominion. Fichte shares this vision of a division of labor: if we compel an individual to select a class against his division, we make a member of society into a tool of it (Fichte 167). Fichte strongly believes that the division of labor should be a free choice, divorced from anything Marx would recognize as estranged labor. Thus, both arrive at similar conclusions through dramatically divergent methods that oppose each other at nearly every turn, starting from the nature of man himself.
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Fichte, Early Philosophical Writings. Edited by Daniel. Breazeale, Cornell University Press, 1988.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker, Second Edition ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.
By Samuel Araura