In a sense, consciousness is always in some sense ‘belated,’ as reason is belated in a child. Before we even come to reflect, we are always already situated in a material context; and our thought, however apparently abstract and theoretical, is shaped to the core by this fact. It is philosophical idealism which forgets that our ideas have a foundation in practice. By detaching them from this context, it can fall victim to the illusion that it is thought which creates reality.
A thinker like Locke or Hume starts with the senses; Marx, by contrast, asks where the senses themselves come from. And the answer goes something like this. Our biological needs are the foundation of history. We have a history because we are creatures of lack, and in that sense history is natural to us. Nature and history are in Marx’s view sides of the same coin. As our needs get caught up in history, however, they undergo transformation. In satisfying certain needs, for example, we find ourselves creating new ones. And in this whole process, our sensory life is shaped and refined.
In this way, we begin to tell a story. In fact, we begin to BE a story. Animals that are not capable of desire, complex labor, and elaborate forms of communication tend to repeat themselves. Their lives are determined by natural cycles. They do not shape a narrative for themselves, which is what Marx knows as freedom. The irony in his view is that though this self-determination is of the essence of humanity, the great majority of men and women throughout history have been unable to exercise it. They have not been permitted to be fully human. Instead, their lives have been for the most part determined by the dreary cycles of class-society. Why this has been so, and how it can be put right, is what Marx’s work is all about. It is about how we might move from the kingdom of necessity to the realm of freedom. This means becoming rather less like badgers and rather more like ourselves.