Sunday, 18 May 2014

Critiquing Timpanaro’s Concept of Hedonism vis-à-vis Materialism - PART II

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts Marx emphasized the fact that humans become truly human only when they can rise above consumption and set themselves to other kinds of activity excepting those meant to supply their daily needs, the means of subsistence. One of their objections against the capitalist society, nay of class society in any form, is that humans are reduced to mere animals by the social conditions created by the exploiting class. Marx writes:
‘Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him – that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self. (EPM p.73)’
What is the consequence of this self-alienation? Marx writes:
‘As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal. (EPM p. 73)’
Does Marx speak like Axel, the aristocrat in Comte de Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1836-89)’s play, Axel, who tells her beloved Sara non-chalantly: ‘Living? The servants will do that for us’ (Vivre? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous. Act 4 Scene 1, p.283).7 No. Marx was quite conscious of the biological needs of humans:
‘Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuinely human functions. But taken abstractly, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.’ (EPM p. 73)
We hear an echo of this in Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England (1845):
‘The southern facile character of the Irishman, his crudity, which places him but little above the savage, his contempt for all humane enjoyments, in which his very crudeness makes him incapable of sharing, his filth and poverty, all favour drunkenness. The temptation is great, he cannot resist it, and so when he has money he gets rid of it down his throat. What else should he do? How can society blame him when it places him in a position in which he almost of necessity becomes a drunkard; when it leaves him to himself, to his savagery?’ (CWCE pp 126-27)’
In the same work, young Engels laments:
‘It offers no field for mental activity, and claims just enough of his (sc. worker’s) attention to keep him from thinking of anything else. And a sentence to such work, to work which takes his whole time for itself, leaving him scarcely time to eat and sleep, none for physical exercise in the open air, or the enjoyment of Nature, much less for mental activity, how can such a sentence help degrading a human being to the level of a brute?’ (CWCE pp. 152)’
What makes humans distinct from all other species belonging to the same genus is that the humans are productive while others are not. Marx distinguished the concept of production in animals and humans in this way:
‘Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one­sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. ‘(EPM pp. 75-76)
Marx developed this idea more lucidly in Capital, Vol. I:
‘We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination [the German text reads Kopf, ‘head’] before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.’ 9 (Moscow ed. 3:7, p. 174)
And then comes the most startling sentence, or rather an apophthegm or maxim: ‘Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.’ (EPM p.76)

In this work Marx also speaks of man-woman relations:
‘Prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer, and since it is a relationship in which falls not the prostitute alone, but also the one who prostitutes – and the latter’s abomination is still greater – the capitalist, etc., also comes under this head.10 (EPM pp.99-100 n31)
Prostitution to Marx is not just a special case of domination. It demeans both the exploiter and the exploited. It is viewed against the backdrop of capitalist exploitation as a whole. He goes on explaining:
‘In the approach to woman as the spoil and handmaid of communal lust is expressed the infinite degradation in which man exists for himself, for the secret of this approach has its unambiguous decisive, plain and undisguised expression in the relation of man to woman and in the manner in which the direct and natural procreative relationship is conceived. The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman. In this natural relationship of the sexes man’s relation to nature is immediately his relation to man, just as his relation to man is immediately his relation to nature – his own natural function.’ (EPM pp.100-01. Italics in the original).
Marx also distinguished between food as such and what he significantly calls the ‘human form of food’. He says:
‘For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals.’(EPM p.109)


There is no room for doubt that in their first attempts at self-clarification Marx and Engels emphasized the need for food and drinks, clothing and habitation, which are essential for the survival of all humans at all times. In their joint work, German Ideology they observed:
‘The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, orohydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.’ (GI p. 31)
At the same time Marx and Engels again distinguished between humans and all other animals in the following way:
‘Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.’ (GI p. 31. Italics in the original.)
Here is a purely objective way of viewing things, not from the angle of consumption, but from that of production. Consumption does not occupy any significant place in the Marxian model of studying human societies, whether pre-capitalist or capitalist.

All this amply proves how Marx viewed the function of food not merely as a means of subsistence but also as a human product, something to be enjoyed only when one is eating not just because one is hungry but because one is prepared to appreciate the art of cuisine as well as the appearance of the dishes to please the eye. In other words, only by transcending the basic natural need for food that human kind can really achieve the aesthetic and truly human enjoyment. It is neither the gourmet nor the gourmand that Marx approves of. Food should have a properly human relationship to all humans, who do not suffer from hunger and can enjoy their food as a human product. 


In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels do not openly discuss the views of Babeuf (1760-97), the French egalitarianist, but Charles Andler is of the opinion that ‘Babeuf is by implication classed [by Marx and Engels] among the reactionaries as one of those who “preached universal asceticism and a crude egalitarianism”.’(Qtd. in Ryazanoff, CM, p.230). Whether or not such a view is tenable, the fact is that Marx and Engels were very much opposed to any form of asceticism. In their satire against Feudal Socialism they write:
‘Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.’ (CM, Moscow ed. p.89)
Of course Babeuf cannot and should not be tarred in the same brush as the preachers of Christian Socialism. He had no intention of pleasing either the aristocrats or the priests. Yet it cannot be denied that in the writings of at least some of the Babeuvists the idea of ‘universal asceticism and a crude equalitarianism’ are encountered. (Ryazanoff p.232). Engels in his The Peasant War in Germany ( ) accounts for the feature ‘why asceticism not only characterized the risings of medieval days but likewise, at the outset, tinged with religious hues every proletarian movement of recent times’(Ryazanoff p.232). The passage, in spite of its great length, is worth quoting in full:
Already among these precursors of the movement we notice an asceticism which is to be found in all mediaeval uprisings that were tinged with religion, and also in modern times at the beginning of every proletarian movement. This austerity of behaviour, this insistence on relinquishing all enjoyment of life, contrasts the ruling classes with the principle of Spartan equality. Nevertheless, it is a necessary transitional stage, without which the lowest strata of society could never start a movement. In order to develop revolutionary energy, in order to become conscious of their own hostile position towards all other elements of society, in order to concentrate as a class, the lower strata of society must begin with stripping themselves of everything that could reconcile them to the existing system of society. They must renounce all pleasures which would make their subdued position in the least tolerable and of which even the severest pressure could not deprive them.

This plebeian and proletarian asceticism differs widely, both by its wild fanatic form and by its contents, from the middle-class asceticism as preached by the middle-class Lutheran morality and by the English Puritans (to be distinguished from the independent and farther-reaching sects) whose whole secret is middle-class thrift. It is quite obvious that this plebeian and proletarian asceticism loses its revolutionary character when the development of modern productive forces increases the number of commodities, thus rendering Spartan equality superfluous, and on the other hand, the very position of the proletariat in society, and thereby the proletariat itself becomes more and more revolutionary. Gradually, this asceticism disappears from among the masses. Among the sects with which it survives, it degenerates either into bourgeois parsimony or into high-sounding virtuousness which, in the end, is nothing more than Philistine or guild-artisan niggardliness. Besides, renunciation of pleasures need not be preached to the proletariat for the simple reason that it has almost nothing more to renounce’. (PWG pp. 63-64. Italics in the original.)
Notwithstanding this striking feature, asceticism cannot be a part of the communist programme as Marx and Engels envisaged it. But a negation of asceticism and abstinence does not necessarily lead to an assertion of the other extreme: eating and drinking and making merriment are the sole aims of life. In fact, given Marx’s views of the future communist society, it is conceivable that he wanted to steer a middle course between unlimited consumption and total abstinence, the golden mean that would make human life happy without overindulgence either in too much of sensual enjoyment or scrupulously avoiding all pleasures.

Marx and Engels preferred to see humans not as isolated individuals but as units in a well-organized society. They would all get whatever they need (and needs would obviously vary from person to person, depending on each one’s circumstances) and they would contribute to social welfare to the best of their ability. Marx formulated the goal of communism in his Critique of the Gotha Programme: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’ (Moscow ed. p.22; Peking ed. p.17) Such a society would demand rational men and women, not trying to keep up with the Joneses; on the other hand, they should be conscious of others’ needs, not only of their own. Consumption would be based o rational choice, not on what ‘the hidden persuaders’ (in Packard’s words) would make them do. Since there would be neither any status (as in the pre-capitalist societies) nor any class division (as it prevailed in all human societies after the dissolution of the pre-class society, otherwise known as ‘primitive communism’), both consumption and production would be organized on rational lines. Self-enjoyment at the cost of others would have no room in such a society.

In view of all this, Timpanaro’s advocacy for hedonism as inhering in materialism (including Marx’s) seems to be not only ill-conceived, but also harmful to the understanding of the socio-philosophical basis of communism. Materialism to many has one and only one meaning: ‘a tendency to consider material possession and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values’ (as given in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary). The other meaning, ‘Philosophy the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications,’ is seldom noted and understood. By equating materialist ethics with hedonism Timpanaro has strengthened the hands of the anti-materialists and fideists. Instead of throwing light on the matter, he has made the confusion worse confounded.

We can do no better than conclude this critique with what Engels famously observed in Ludwig Feurbach:
‘By the word materialism, the philistine understands gluttony, drunkenness, lust of the eye, lust of the flesh, arrogance, cupidity, avarice, covetousness, profit-hunting, and stock-exchange swindling — in short, all the filthy vices in which he himself indulges in private. By the word idealism he understands the belief in virtue, universal philanthropy, and in a general way a “better world”, of which he boasts before others but in which he himself at the utmost believes only so long as he is having the blues or is going through the bankruptcy consequent upon his customary “materialist” excesses.’ (On Religion, p.237)’

Click here for PART - I of this essay

The entire Notes and References appear along with both the parts uploaed on our website


To the readers: Quotations from some sources, more particularly from the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, unless otherwise mentioned, are taken from the texts available in the Marxist Internet Archive. For facilitating references and locating the exact place, the page numbers in the print versions are also given, although the translations will vary to some extent.

  1. In order to have a general understanding of hedonism as a technical, philosophical term, see ‘Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435-350 BC),’ ‘Cyrenaics,’ and ‘hedonism’ in Blackburn (or any other dictionary/encyclopedia of western philosophy). See also Shields, and Tännsjö.
  2. See, for instance, Bottomore and others (eds.). There is no article on hedonism and no reference to it in the article on ethics. See also Eagleton.
  3. See the works by Ash, Kamenka, and Sayers, devoted exclusively to the place of ethics in Marxism.
  4. It is interesting to note that, while almost all the Presocratic and post-Socratic philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero are placed in the first circle of Dante’s Inferno (Canto 4), Epicurus and his followers are separated and assigned to the sixth circle (Canto 10), their sin being that they ‘make the soul die with the body.’ But Dante did not continue to hold the same view of Epicurus throughout his life. See Mazzeo pp.106-20
  5. For a bird’s-eye view of Epicurus and his philosophical views, particularly ethics, see Bogomolov, pp. 259-78 and Shields (ed.), pp. 237-50.
  6. It is interesting to observe that in medieval England, of all persons, Plato and Seneca were taken to be the advocates of communism! In Piers the Plowman by William Langland (c.1332-c.1400 CE) a passage runs as follows:

Envy heard this and bade Friars go to college And learn logic and law and also the contemplative life, And preach to men of Plato and prove it by Seneca, That all things under heaven ought to be in common (Passus XX, p.198)

  1. Marx and Engels did not succeed in publishing German Ideology in book form in their life time. The ms lay ‘abandoned to the gnawing criticism of the mice’. But they were not overly concerned, for the main purpose behind writing the book was to achieve self-clarification, and they felt they had achieved it. See GI, pp. 13 and 681-82 n1.
  2. In another edition of Axel published by J. M. Dent et Fils, the sentence occurs on p. 260. The play, otherwise insignificant, is widely known for this speech alone.
  3. For a somewhat different translation of this highly significant passage see Capital (Penguin Books), vol.1, 7:1, p. 284.
  4. This note is given by Marx on page V of the manuscript where it is separated by a horizontal line from the main text, but according to its meaning it refers to this sentence. (Note by Progress Publishers)

Works Cited

Aristophanes. The Knights, Peace, The Birds, The Assemblywomen, Wealth. Trans. David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.

Ash, William. Marxism and Moral Concepts. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964.

Ash, William. Marxist Morality. London: Howard Baker, 1988.

Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Firenze (Florence): Societa Editrice Fiorentina, 2009; London: Anthem Press, 2011.

Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Lokāyata Darśana and a Comparative Study with Greek materialism, in: Partha Ghose (ed.), Materialism and Immaterialism in India and the West: Varying Vistas. New Delhi: Centre for the Studies on Civilizations, 12:5, 2010, pp.21-34. (2010c)

Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna Development of Materialism in India: the Pre­Carvakas and the Carvakas, Esercizi Filosofici 8, 2013, pp. 1­12. (2013a)

Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Bogomolov, A. S. History of Ancient Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985.

Bottomore, Tom and others (eds). A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. New Delhi. Maya Blackwell/ Worldview, 2000 (second edition).

C/L Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Ed. Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad in collaboration with Mrinal Kanti Gangopadhyaya.. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research/Rddhi India, 1990.

Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Twelfth Edition. Eds. Angus Stevenson and Maurice Waite. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by J. A. Carlyle (Inferno), T.Okey (Purgatario), and P.H. Wicksteed (Paradiso). New York: Vintage Books, n.d.

de l’isle-Adam, Comte de Auguste Villiers. Axel. Paris: Maison Quantin. 1890. (A copy of this edition is to be found in the University of Toronto Library, Call no. LF V758.2, accn. no. 153342, also available on the web). Another copy of the play published by J. M. Dent et Fils from Paris, London, and New York, n.d., can be read on the web:

Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx was Right. Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2012.

Engels, Frederick. Anti-Dühring. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977.

Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the Working-Class in England. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980. (sic)

Engels, Frederick. Dialectics of Nature. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982.

Engels, Frederick. Ludwig Feurbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy, in Marx-Engels, On Religion, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n. d.

Engels, Frederick. The Peasants’ War in Germany. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969.

Hegel, G.W.F. The Philosophy of History. New York: Dover Publications, n.d.

Horace. Epistles. Translated by A. S. Kline © 2005

Kamenka, Eugene. The Ethical Foundations of Marxism. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.

Kamenka, Eugene. Marxism and Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1969.

Krishnamishra. Prabodhacandrodaya. Ed. and Trans. by Sita Krishna Nambiar. Delhi: MLBD, 1971.

Langland, William. The Book concerning Piers the Plowman. Rendered into modern English by Donald and Rachel Attwater. Ed. Rachel Attwater. London: Dent/Everyman’s Library, 1967.

Lenin. V.I. Philosophical Notebooks. Collected Works, Vol. 38. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. I. Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976.

Marx, Karl. Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature in: Marx-Engels, Collected Works (MECW), Vol. 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975.

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), 1961.

Marx, Karl [and Frederick Engels]. Critique of the Gotha Programme. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976. Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. Critique of the Gotha Programme, etc. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), n.d.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), n.d.

Marxist update: Anon. Philosophy of hedonism. downloaded on 27.2.2014.

Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony. Dante and Epicurus, Comparative Literature, 10:2 Spring 1958, pp.106­-20.

Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. New York: David McKay Co., 1960.

Ryazanoff, D (ed.). Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Calcutta: Radical Book Club, 1972.

Sayana-Madhava. Sarvadarsanasamgraha, Chap. 1. See C/L.

Sayers, Sean. Marxism and Morality -revised.doc -marxismandmorality.pdf

Shields, Christopher (ed.). The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Tännsjö, Rorbjörn. Hedonistic Utilitarianism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. [Extracts available on the net.]

Thomson, George. The First Philosophers (Studies in Ancient Greek Society, vol. 2). London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955.

Timpanaro, Sebastiano. On Materialism. London: Verso, 1980.

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Amlan Dasgupta, Chinmay Guha, Debapriya Pal, and Sunish Kumar Deb. The usual disclaimers apply.

Prof Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of Pavlov Institute, Kolkata.

This paper was first published in Psyche and Society 12:1 May 2014, 4-1

Part I of this essay is available here


I just wanted to extend my thanks for what I consider to be your major contribution to a fundamental issue. Timpanaro comes up in something I'm now putting together, and my take is similar to yours, except that I bring in "species being" to make more specific how one transcends the limitations of the self taken in hypothetical isolation.

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