Material Conditions: A Comparative Analysis of Idealism and Materialism

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By Josh Seaman


The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claims that the material conditions of society are the foundation of our intellectual development. Their theory of dialectical materialism states that the notions we have about society are formed by our underlying social conditions. While their presented theory advocates for a revolution in the material conditions of society and the abolition of private property, many thinkers before Marx and Engels dealt with our relation to material conditions in society. In one of his most notable works, The Republic, Plato explores the significance of private property and its relation to idealism. As one of his most central and influential ideas, Plato contends that the essential nature of the world is based on abstract ideas, as opposed to material conditions. As Plato supports idealism as opposed to materialism, his perspective on the nature of the world directly opposes that of Marx and Engels. Contrary to The Communist Manifesto, The Republic contends that the fundamental abstract concepts of society, such as class, are the cause of our material conditions. As such, Plato’s theories on idealism demonstrate the necessity of private property. In the seventh book of The Republic, Plato demonstrates his perspective of idealism through the Allegory of the Cave. The Republic also demonstrates a utopian society in which the relation humans have to private property is a foundational aspect of this society. Although significant, the material conditions of Plato’s proposed society are founded from an idealist perspective and are therefore an effect of abstract notions as opposed to their cause. Contrarily, Marx contends that the material conditions of society are not only significant, but are the foundation of the development of society, and in turn abstract notions, such as class structure. While the development of materialism and idealism in their respective texts present a duality in thought and perspective, a comparative analysis of both philosophies expands our understanding of materialism and idealism as they pertain to societal and intellectual development.

Marx and Engels view private property as a detrimental construct of society that defines the development of our ideological perspectives. To understand the relation that communist ideology holds to materialism, it is important to first understand the manner in which Marx and Engels understand private property. Private property, in the Marxist perspective, is not the “hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property” (Marx and Engels 82) of individuals. Marx and Engels refer to the form of property, such as land and modes of production, that allow one to increase their wealth at the expense of the large majority of society and “[exploit] wage labour” (82). The Communist Manifesto contends that the existence of private property is beneficial for only a small portion of society, and that “its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of [the] nine-tenths [of society]” (85). Private property not only creates a disparity between classes, but, as it is an aspect of material conditions, perpetuates the ideological premise that maintains this disparity: capitalism. As such, Marx and Engels believe the abolishment of private property would not only resolve inequality, but would eradicate the ideology that supports its maintenance. This is a direct result of their materialistic perspective, in that it is our material conditions that are the essence of our capitalistic ideology. It is only through a change in our material interactions and the manner in which we both perceive and utilize private property, that the ideological perspective of society as a whole can evolve. As the current material conditions form our understanding of society, an abolishment of private property, and therefore a change in the material conditions, would change our societal perspectives altogether. Through this perspective on private property, the role of material conditions becomes the foundation of our society as a whole. It is the materialist aspect of communist theory that necessitates the abolishment of private property for revolutionary change in society.

From the beginning of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels demonstrate the essentiality of material conditions as it pertains to intellectual development and the development of society. Yet, Marx claims that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (1), and as such, this raises the question of what importance does historical materialism hold? On the one hand, Marx and Engels contend that it is the material conditions of society that define its evolution, yet they claim that the struggle between classes is what ultimately defines the evolution of history. While these two ideas may appear contradictory upon initial reading, an in-depth analysis of historical materialist philosophy as a whole demonstrates how these two ideas are not only compatible, but necessitate each other. Although materialism contends that the intellectual development and evolution of society is defined by our material conditions, rather than having mutual exclusivity with class struggle, it is ultimately the root of class struggle altogether. Oftentimes, misconceptions about the relation between materialism and class struggle results from a misinterpretation of Marx and Engels’ writings. In his article, “The Consistency of Historical Materialism”, Richard Miller addresses the misconceptions surrounding historical materialism and how they can ultimately be resolved, in turn further demonstrating the significance of materialism as it pertains to class struggle. Miller responds to another article written by Stanley Moore, in which Moore contends that “major aspects of Marx’s theory of social development are mutually incompatible” (Miller 235). Although a common misconception about Marxist theory, Miller responds to Moore’s article by demonstrating the manner in which these misconceptions arise out of a misinterpretation of The Communist Manifesto. Miller approaches these misconceptions by contending that these aspects of Marx and Engels’ writings should not be taken in a literal manner, but as representative of their ideology as a whole. Richard Miller uses an analogy of a geologist, “to take a simple example, a geologist might say, ‘the history of the earth’s surface is the history of continental drift.’ If he means to explain ‘the general idea guiding his studies’ in plate-tectonics, we would accept his statement as a legitimate simplification of reality” (237). Although “the earth was once entirely covered with water” (237), the geologist in this analogy claims that earth’s history is defined by continental drift as a simplification of a more complex idea, yet we nonetheless can infer the meaning of this without assuming it to be literal.

In the same respect, in contending that the history of society is defined by class struggle, Marx and Engels are simplifying their philosophical perspective of historical materialism, and the resulting effect it has on class structure. Miller contends that reading The Communist Manifesto “requires a liberal interpretation” (238). Yet “a liberal interpretation” does not allow Marx and Engels to contradict themselves, but rather constitutes an understanding that their simplifications are understood within the context of, and as a referencing, historical materialism. When taken literally, their works may appear contradictory, yet to understand The Communist Manifesto and its implications, one must take into account the context of the underlying philosophical premise of historical materialism. As such, Miller demonstrates the manner in which the claim that historical development is defined by class struggle is a simplification of the general premise of The Communist Manifesto, as class struggle arises from material conditions. The application of Miller’s resolution to the misconceptions of historical materialism allows us to further our understanding of how historical materialism not only pertains to class struggle, but how our relationship with private property ultimately defines this class struggle.

While Miller’s work is more so concerned with solving misinterpretations of historical materialism, it nonetheless serves to further our understanding of the relationship between private property and intellectual development, and how it ultimately contrasts with Platonic idealism. In combining Miller’s interpretations of historical materialism with a comparative analysis of materialism and idealism, the contrast of these two schools of thought can be further understood. In understanding the significance of context and the manner in which Marx and Engels use the concept of class to simplify and demonstrate the effects of historical materialism, the perspective of historical materialism that they present in The Communist Manifesto and the inherent implications and natural consequences that arise, such as class struggle, become evident.

While Marx and Engels present a clear perspective on the significance of material conditions as they pertain to our intellectual development, an understanding of Platonic idealism can allow for a deeper and more enriched understanding of the significance of materialism and the interplay between material goods and abstract ideas or notions. Similarly, a profound understanding of materialism and its contextualization within Marxism allows for a better understanding of idealism. An analysis of the dichotomy of materialism and idealism serves to help better understand the relationship between material goods and ideas as it relates to both philosophies. This juxtaposition helps to form individual perspectives on the soundness of both philosophies and understand the reasoning behind the principles of each.

Plato’s idealism and perspective on the role that private property plays in society demonstrates a clear contrast to the materialist theory presented by Marx and Engels. While Plato recognizes the significance that private property holds in society, his idealistic perspective differentiates material conditions as influenced by ideas as opposed to being influential in intellectual development. In other words, Platonic idealism contends that material conditions arise as a result of pre-existing abstract notions, whereas materialism contends that material conditions are the root of the abstract notions of society. In the seventh book of The Republic, Plato presents the Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, Plato states that there are “men in an underground cave-dwelling . . . their legs and necks in chains, so that they stay where they are and look only in front of them . . . higher up, a fire is burning behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners is a road” (514). Having been shackled in this cave their whole lives, their only perception of reality is the shadows cast on the wall of the cave in front of them, caused by the fire projecting images of what passes along the road of the outside world. Upon breaking free, one of the individuals leaves the cave and sees that his former perception of the world was nothing like its true form. Although an allegory, Plato contends that “[these people] are like ourselves” (515), in that our perception of reality is but a reflection of its true form. Plato uses this allegory to present his idealistic theory of the forms, which states that the basis of our reality is, in actuality, a reflection of true and perfect forms, or abstract ideas. Every material item, such as trees, rocks and animals, are reflections of the perfect forms of each. Similarly, individuals’ perceptions of abstract ideas, such as love and beauty, are also reflections of the true forms of these ideas. As such, the abstract notions of society, such as class structure, love and desire, are ultimately fundamental and inherent notions that define society and its structures, and are therefore independent of the material conditions of society. In understanding the basis of Platonic idealism, it becomes apparent how it contrasts to materialism. As the essence of society is based on abstract ideas, it follows that material conditions are only instrumental in the application of these ideas. The underlying concept of this philosophy demonstrates the relation that Platonic idealism holds to private property and its necessity within society, in that the material conditions of society are the direct result of the natural and essential characteristics of each individual and society as a whole.

While Marx and Engels perceive private property as ownership of the means of production in society, Plato understands private property as any form of material goods that can be owned by an individual. When explaining the role of private property in the kallipolis, his ideal city-state, Plato argues that private property is defined as “land or houses or money” (417). As such, private property is understood to be anything that relates to money or land ownership, and therefore constitutes any form of material good. While Marx and Engels contend that the abolishment of private property is necessary for an evolution of our intellectual development, their perception of private property as the ownership of the means of production ultimately informs the relationship that historical materialism has with private property. Similarly, Plato’s perspective on the role of private property within society, informed by his idealist perspective, is ultimately influenced by his perception of what defines private property. The discrepancy in the perception of what defines private property between Marxist materialism and Platonic idealism ultimately forms the basis of how these two philosophies function in relation to private property.

Plato applies his idealistic perspective to the significance of private property when formulating a utopian society. He believes that each individual is born with certain natural distinctions, and as such, the class structure of the kallipolis is based upon the essential characteristics of their souls. Plato uses a metaphor, known as the “noble lie” (414), to demonstrate the differences between the natural characteristics of different groups of individuals. He contends that the soul of each individual is made of either gold, silver or copper. The first class of people, the guardians with souls that are made of “gold” (415), are the leaders of society, as they are driven by their wisdom and “are capable of ruling” (415). The second class, the auxiliaries with souls of “silver” (415), are responsible for the protection of the city, as they are driven by their bravery and “courage” (416). Finally, the third class of people are the rest of society who have souls of “iron and copper” (415). This class of society is made up by the average citizens who work as tradespeople, farmers and so on, and are naturally defined by their passions and desires. The guardians and auxiliaries, with “divine metals always in their hearts” (416), should own no form of private property whatsoever, as they “have no need of men’s silver and gold; nay, [it] is an act of impiety to pollute their possession of the divine gold by conjoining it with the mortal” (416). Plato furthers this by declaring that the auxiliaries and guardians should “live in common, taking their meals at public tables” (417). Plato contends that should the auxiliaries or guardians “acquire land or houses or money of their own, and are men of business and farmers instead of guardians, they will become hated masters” (417). As such, Plato argues that the possession of private property by the middle and upper class would lead to corrupt individuals of these classes. Contrarily, although Plato contends that “no one shall have any private property, unless it is absolutely necessary” (416), the individuals with copper souls are driven by their desires, and private property therefore becomes a necessity to these individuals. The means to achieve food, drink and whatever else necessary to satiate their fundamental desires and appetites is deemed by Plato to be justified, as these desires are an essential aspect of their nature. The discrepancy in the relationship that silver and gold souls have with private property compared to those with copper souls demonstrates the foundational significance that one’s pre-existing nature holds in relation to their material conditions. Contrary to Marxist thought, Plato’s idealistic perspective demonstrates the manner in which material conditions obey the abstract ideas that form the essence of society.

Yet the significance of private property as it relates to Platonic idealism serves to not only demonstrate the importance of private property as a function of the kallipolis and as a result of Plato’s ideal class system, but how private property functions to solidify this class system. While contrary to the materialist perspective on private property, Plato contends that material conditions are the result of predetermined abstract notions of society, such as the metaphorical substance with which someone’s soul is made of, the kallipolis’ class system is nonetheless maintained by private property. As such, while Plato contends that private property does not inform the intellectual development of society, it nevertheless serves to further the implications of the ideas that govern our intellectual development. In her article, “The Private and the Common in Plato’s ‘Republic’”, the italian philosopher, Cinzia Arruzza furthers this idea by claiming that private property serves to “create a situation of fundamental asymmetry in the relationship between the classes” (215) of the kallipolis. Arruzza contends that the relationship between social classes and private property in the kallipolis helps to create a drastic separation between the class of the citizens and the classes of the guardians and auxiliaries. While Platonic idealism contends that the distinctions that form the three classes are natural distinctions that must be abided by, the allowance of private property for the average citizen, but not for the auxiliaries or the guardians, “[creates] a visible line of separation” (231) that serves to materialize the natural distinctions that form these classes. As Plato contends that rulers, and therefore those who lead a public life, must have the innate ability to philosophize, the justification for their ruling is a natural one. As the average citizen must “lead their life in the domain of the private” (231), their exclusion from the right to govern society is furthered by the relationship that each class has to private property. By simply having the ability to own private property, the citizen class solidifies the class distinction. Arruzza’s claim that private property solidifies the abstract notions that define our understanding of society, such as class structure, serves to further the understanding of Platonic idealism as a whole. In combining Arruzza’s claims about private property in the kallipolis with a foundational understanding of Platonic idealism, we can further understand the manner in which Plato’s perception of intellectual development through an idealistic lens results in the material conditions of society as being a consequence of, yet nonetheless instrumental in solidifying, the underlying ideas that govern society. As such, the relationship that each class has with private property serves to materialize these underlying ideas that stem from an idealistic perspective of society, such as class distinction. Furthermore, the in-depth analysis of interplay between private property and class distinction by Arruzza combined with a comprehensive understanding of Platonic idealism as a whole further demonstrates the duality of idealism and materialism as they pertain to private property.

While the manner in which Platonic idealism approaches the relationship with private property, as well as material conditions as a whole, holds similarities to the materialist perspective set forth by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, these two philosophies ultimately contrast significantly. While upon first glance of the manner in which Platonic idealism approaches material conditions, it may appear as though private property is the essence of class distinction and informs intellectual development, an in-depth understanding of the philosophy of idealism demonstrates how it starkly contrasts with that of materialism. While in both cases, the material conditions of society solidify abstract concepts, such as class structure, idealism ultimately perceives the material conditions of society, and thus the relationship that individuals have with private property, as being informed by the underlying ideas that govern society. Contrarily, materialist philosophy contends that the material conditions of society are what ultimately inform our intellectual development, and are therefore the essence of abstract notions. As such, through a Marxist perspective, the concept of class is manufactured by the material conditions of society. While both philosophies appear similar, when juxtaposed, the duality of thought becomes clear.

Yet, by understanding the dissimilarity in thought between Marxist materialism and Platonic idealism, we can further our understanding of the role that material conditions, and specifically private property, play in society. While an in-depth understanding of Platonic idealism allows for an understanding of the manner in which an idealist perceives material conditions as being informed by intellectual development and abstract notions, juxtaposing this philosophical perspective with that of historical materialism allows for a better understanding of the interplay between private property and abstract notions within Platonic idealism. Similarly, this juxtaposition allows us to better understand historical materialism within the context of Marxism by contrasting it with a philosophy that is essentially antithetical. While a fundamental understanding of Marxist materialism allows for an understanding of the essence of material conditions in the evolution of intellectual development and abstract notions, the contrast with idealist philosophy helps to further demonstrate the significance of private property as the fundamental principle of materialism.

In contrast with Marxist philosophy, Platonic idealism serves to further our understanding of both idealist and materialist thought. Marx and Engels contend that the material conditions of society are what influence our desires and intellectual development, and as such, in changing these conditions, our desires and ideological perspectives will adjust accordingly. Contrarily, Platonic idealism contends that the material conditions of society must comply with the essential natures of our souls, and the resulting abstract notions. In juxtaposing these two ideas, we can form a more clear picture of the relationship that materialism and idealism have with private property and class. The materialist perspective presented by Marx and Engels contends that private property perpetuates an unnatural class distinction that can only be changed through the abolishment of private property, thus evolving our material conditions. This contrasts with Plato’s idealism, which contends that private property is used to satisfy the natural desires of certain classes of society, with material conditions therefore being altered in accordance with these natural desires and distinctions. Through a comparative analysis of both philosophies, individuals and society as a collective can better understand the significant role that material conditions play, whether instrumental in our development or essential to it.



Works Cited

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Translated by Samuel Moore,

Washington Square Press, 1964.

Plato. The Republic. Translated by A.D. Lindsay, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1988.

Miller, Richard W. “The Consistency of Historical Materialism.” Philosophy & Public Affairs,

vol. 4, no. 4. Wiley, 1975, pp. 390–409.

Arruzza, Cinzia. “The Private and the Common in Plato’s ‘Republic’.” History of Political

Thought, vol. 32, no. 2. Imprint, 2011, pp. 215–33.