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What Sort of Kinetic Materialism Did Marx Find in Epicurus?

Marx in Motion: A New Materialist Marxism by Thomas Nail

Marx in Motion: A New Materialist Marxism by Thomas Nail.

Boris Hennig is an associate professor of ancient philosophy at Ryerson University in Toronto. He earned his PhD from Universität Leipzig.
Thomas Nail, Marx in Motion (Oxford University Press, 2020), 247 pages, $ 29.95, paperback.

In his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx suggests that the main flaw of all previous materialism has been to uncritically accept and champion a notion of matter that has its proper place in a dualistic framework, where matter is passive and the mind is active.1 If this is so, true materialism will conceive of matter as an active principle, and of material beings as perfectly capable of conscious sensation and agency.

Thomas Nail argues that Marx lays the groundwork for such a true materialism in his doctoral dissertation, on which he relies throughout the rest of his work. According to Nail, Marx finds in Epicurus a theory that describes and explains all material phenomena—thus, for Marx, all reality—in terms of a form of circular movement. This ties in nicely with Marx’s view that all human activity is a sort of metabolic exchange with and within nature. Further, if human life is a form of circular, metabolic movement, it makes sense to think of alienation as a disruption or distortion of this movement. This way, capitalism can be seen as a self-reinforcing disruption within the cycle of human life and a risky metabolic experiment.2 Capitalism is, as it were, a cancerous epicycle of social metabolism.

For these and many other reasons, Nail’s proposal is exciting and promising. Furthermore, Nail has published two volumes on Lucretius, making him highly qualified to patiently and carefully read Marx’s doctoral dissertation, lay out the relevant background in Greek physics, in particular in Democritus and Epicurus, and perhaps also decipher the Hegelian language that Marx uses. However, Nail seems to think that Marx had never read Hegel before writing his dissertation, so there is not much on that.3 He also does not tell us much about Greek physics, but this too is fine; other books do that. As for a careful reading of the doctoral dissertation, Marx in Motion does contain a couple of excellent examples of insightful, productive, and patient reading.

Nail is a master of dissecting short paragraphs and going on illuminating tangents, such as when he devotes almost an entire chapter to a footnote in Marx, or unpacks Marx’s references to Robinson Crusoe.4 The following is a condensed version of what Nail finds in Marx’s doctoral dissertation.

According to Nail, Marx takes Epicurus to describe atoms as “continual flows of matter,” wherein matter undergoes a single motion. This single motion may be analyzed in terms of three concepts: straight motion, declination, and repulsion. They add up thus: Straight motion gets declined, so that it describes a curve that ultimately folds back onto itself, and the resulting circular motion is repulsion. Repulsion, the movement by which an atom folds back over onto itself, gives rise to the specific qualities of the atom. The assumption that repulsion is a movement by which something folds back onto itself neatly motivates Marx’s claim that repulsion is the first form of self-consciousness. In folding back over onto itself, Nail concludes, all matter senses itself.5

This is the germ of Nail’s kinetic materialism, and like the fish your uncle caught last summer, it tends to grow every time he talks about it. Nail goes on to claim that objective being in general emerges when matter swerves and folds back over itself, that all form is the kinetic curvature in matter, sensation occurs whenever matter touches itself, relative discreteness emerges through the process of folding, and self-consciousness emerges whenever matter swerves and responds to itself. Step by step, the idea that matter folds back over onto itself evolves into a theory that accounts for almost everything: the solidity and discreteness of matter, its form, the objectivity of objects, sensation, consciousness, human life, society, capitalism, and value. Any diligent reviewer of Marx in Motion should therefore double-check whether it is actually attributable to Marx.6

Let us begin with the idea of a single, threefold motion. When Marx speaks of a threefold motion in Epicurus, he says: “One [die eine] motion is the fall in a straight line, the second [die andere] originates in the deviation of the atom from the straight line, and the third [die dritte] is established through the repulsion of the many atoms.” This sounds a lot like Marx is enumerating three distinct instances of motion, rather than three determinations of a single circular motion. We might also think of them as three types of events in the life of a moving body: forward motion, change of direction, and collision. Note that Marx later characterizes the motion that results from declination as schräg, which means slanted rather than curved. Marx also speaks of “the repulsion of the many atoms.” Repulsion is evidently something that one atom does to another atom.7

Nail is of course right in that Marx arranges straight motion, declination, and repulsion in a dialectic triad. Here is a slightly emendated version of how Marx does this. If all atoms were to move in parallel lines, no atom would ever bump into any other. This would yield a rather boring universe. If we add various degrees of declination here and there, atoms will start bumping into other atoms, and soon complicated patterns of motion will emerge. Declination will thus lead to repulsion, which happens when one atom collides with another one, and every such collision will lead to further declination. In this sense, repulsion is the realization of declination.8

If this is about right, Marx has given us no reason for identifying either declination or repulsion with a circular movement of matter folding up over itself. Now of course, there are a couple of passages that might show this after all. (1) Marx says that the being to which an atom relates via repulsion is “none other than itself,” and as I have noted, (2) he describes repulsion as “the first form of self-consciousness.” Moreover, (3) he ends up arguing that nature senses itself, and the reason for this might just be that repulsion, as Nail has it, is a motion by which each atom senses itself. Let us take a look at each of these passages in turn.9

  1. When Marx appears to say that, in repulsion, an atom relates to itself, what he is really saying is that “the being to which it [the atom] relates itself is none other than itself, hence equally an atom, and, since it [the other atom] itself is directly determined, many atoms.” Marx means to say that repulsion only works among atoms, so that whatever an atom repels must be another atom. He is not saying that atoms repel themselves.10
  2. Immediately before comparing repulsion to self-consciousness, Marx says that in order to be self-conscious, humans must have crushed within themselves the power of desire. This is a clear reference to the section on self-consciousness in G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. There, Hegel argues that self-consciousness requires a differentiation of consciousness within itself, which is impossible unless one consciousness encounters another. This is why he says that self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness.11 This is the point that Marx is picking up. Just as self-consciousness can only emerge in confrontation with another self-consciousness, the specific form of an atom’s movement can become manifest only when it collides with another atom.
  3. When Marx says that nature senses itself, he explicitly says that the self-sensation of nature is mediated by human sensuousness. His point is simple and rather obvious: humans sense nature, but they are also part of nature, and therefore, some part of nature senses some other part of nature. He is not claiming that every atom in nature senses itself.12

So far, we have encountered no evidence for the view that, according to Marx’s Epicurus, all matter folds up over itself and thus senses itself. Now, even if Nail should be wrong about the doctoral dissertation, a kinetic theory of human life, social metabolism, or political economy will still be very much up Marx’s alley. If Nail can identify such a theory in Marx, this will be highly appreciated. Presumably, a kinetic theory of a given phenomenon would draw distinctions between different sorts and patterns of movement, and it would lay out how the phenomenon in question arises from certain kinds of movement as opposed to others. It might be desirable to not simply replicate physics, which arguably does offer a kinetic materialist theory of many phenomena. Nail, of course, is very well positioned to avoid the latter, since the idea of a movement by which all matter touches and senses itself does go well beyond the average physicist’s idea of matter and motion.

Did Marx, in his later writings, develop the sort of kinetic materialism that Nail attributes to him? As a method of answering this, Nail identifies passages where Marx writes about a given phenomenon, such as social metabolism or exchange value, and points out a couple of interesting facts about the original meaning and etymology of certain German expressions Marx uses. Typically, this reveals a hidden reference to Nail’s favorite movement, that by which something folds over and touches itself. From this, he concludes that Marx holds a kinetic theory of the phenomenon in question.

For example, in the beginning of the first volume of Capital, Marx says that “the relation between the values of two commodities supplies us with the simplest expression [einfachsten Wertausdruck] of the value of a single commodity.” Nail notes that the German word einfach contains fach, which can mean fold, and the German word Ausdruck contains druck, signifying a movement of pressing. Putting these together, he concludes that the origin of value is “folded up” in a “onefold movement.”13

The etymology of German words is thus a rather productive and important tool for the kinetic materialist. This means, presumably, that the quality of a kinetic reading of Marx depends in part on the correctness of the etymological derivations on which it rests. We might therefore be excused for looking at a couple of them in more detail.

In some cases, it might appear as though Nail conflates the etymology of a word with its literal meaning. For instance, he says that the German word zwischen (between), as used by Marx, means twofold, because it derives from a proto-Germanic root that had this meaning. But, one might be tempted to object, Marx did not speak proto-Germanic. Therefore, by describing metabolism as a process between humans and nature, he is not describing it as twofold. In another instance, Nail points out, correctly, that verwandeln is etymologically related to wandeln, which means to wander, to stroll. But this does not show what Nail claims: that verwandeln literally signifies a movement of wandering. That two words are etymologically related does not mean that they literally mean the same. Lung cancer, for instance, does not literally mean crab with lungs.14

Another worry might arise from the shaky appearance of some of Nail’s derivations. For example, he claims that the German Riss means rough, because Grundrisse means rough draft. And when he paraphrases selbstverständlich as standing still, it is not quite clear whether he is confusing selbstverständlich with selbständig, or implicitly arguing that being understood is the same as standing still. Then, there is Nail’s identification of vertrackt (distorted, perverse) with folded over. The only obvious connection between the two is that some consider touching oneself perverse. Elsewhere, Nail suggests that wechseln (to change), as in the German word for metabolismStoffwechsel—signifies a continuous process of folding, but again, changing involves folding only to the extent to which changing one’s clothes might involve unfolding them. It gradually becomes apparent that Nail tends to find etymological references to folding over where there are none.15

In other cases, Nail tends to find hidden references to spontaneity. For instance, he claims that the German word tragen means to give birth. Tragen is to carry, and as long as an animal is pregnant, the German verbs tragen and trächtig sein apply. But being pregnant is not the same as giving birth. Pregnancy ends when birth begins. And one would hope that not all instances of carrying something end in giving birth to it. I, for one, regularly carry things to which I would never volunteer to give birth.16

Elsewhere, Nail complains that Ben Fowkes’s translation of übersinnlich as transcendent obscures the kinetic meaning of the German word, which, he thinks, really refers to an act of folding and thus covering over the sensible form of a thing. In fact, übersinnlich just means beyond the sensible, no folding involved. Last but not least, there is Nail’s claim that the German notwendig literally means not fluid. Nail is quite convinced of his derivation. Where Marx describes labor as ewige Naturnotwendigkeit, which Fowkes correctly translates as eternal natural necessity, Nail drops the reference to eternity and writes natural inflexibility. He does not warn the reader about these changes, and he even refers to his modified translation as “the original quote.” The trouble is that the Not in Notwendigkeit is, of course, not the English particle expressing negation, but the German word for need. And although people often need what they do not have, needing something and negating it just are not the same. In particular, averting a situation of need is pretty much the exact opposite of not being flexible. And this is what Notwendigkeit, for whatever reason, literally signifies: the turning around (wenden) of a case of need (Not).17

None of this means that Nail’s book is not worth reading. Plato’s Cratylus is full of etymological blunders, and yet it is a classic. Nail does make illuminating remarks about primary accumulation, gender, colonization, horror movies, Shakespeare, and Daniel Defoe. When it comes to Marx’s kinetic materialism, however, he does not do much more than (1) argue that in his doctoral dissertation, Marx encounters a notion of matter as folding itself up over itself, (2) point out etymological connections that are supposed to indicate movements of folding, and (3) regularly use the word kinetic. I suspect this might not quite add up to scholarly progress. All in all, Marx in Motion raises many important and interesting questions. Marx certainly thought of matter as an active principle of motion, and it is certainly time for us to read Marx as a kinetic materialist. Nail’s obsession with foldings over, however, tends to obscure rather than clarify what Marx had to say.


  1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx-Engels-Werke, vol. 3 (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1990), 5; Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 5 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 3.
  2. Thomas Nail, Marx in Motion (Oxford University Press, 2020), 75, 115.
  3. Nail, Marx in Motion, 6, 20.
  4. Nail, Marx in Motion, chap. 6, chap. 10.
  5. Nail, Marx in Motion, 21–22, 25, 28.
  6. Nail, Marx in Motion, 33, 63, 83, 114, 137.
  7. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx-Engels-Werke, vol. 40 (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 2012), 278, 281; Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 46, 49.
  8. Marx and Engels, Marx-Engels-Werke, vol. 40, 283; Marx and Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 51.
  9. Marx and Engels, Marx-Engels-Werke, vol. 40, 283–84, 297; Marx and Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 51–52, 65.
  10. Marx and Engels, Marx-Engels-Werke, vol. 40, 283; Marx and Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 51.
  11. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), sec. 175.
  12. Marx and Engels, Marx-Engels-Werke, vol. 40, 297; Marx and Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 65.
  13. Nail, Marx in Motion, 130.
  14. Nail, Marx in Motion, 102, 166.
  15. Nail, Marx in Motion, 102, 104, 107, 132, 165.
  16. Nail, Marx in Motion, 74.
  17. Nail, Marx in Motion, 94, 101, 109, 166.
2021, Commentary, Volume 72, Issue 11 (April 2021)
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