The Contemporary Value of Marx’s Practice of Civilisation

By Bao Zonghao

Karl Marx’s practice of civilisation was used as a reference to this article. However, this is not the full and systematic explanation like the original one authored by him. Rather it is about the judgment that “civilisation is a practical thing,” which supports the logical reason: why the building of culturally advanced cities has been long going on extensively nationwide over the past ten years. Furthermore, has become a cornerstone theory in China in the new era.


I. The Practical Nature of Civilisation

Marx made a systematic and complete analysis of civilisation. According to incomplete statistics, the term “civilisation” was used more than 2,600 times in volumes one to thirty of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels.3  His research on the origin of civilisation was based on the results of Lewis Henry Morgan’s research on differentiating civilisation and barbarity,4  but it is not limited to the history of the origin and evolution of civilisation. On the contrary, it exposed the origin of the human social civilisation by integrating history and logic based on the practice of human labor. It was believed that human civilisation originated in the biggest division of two kinds of labor—the division of material and intellectual labor; and that the division of labor was an important symbol of the era of civilisation and represented the exploitation of one class by another. Marx studied civilisation as part of the practice of it and based on the connection between the development of civilisation and certain production modes and between its development and the resulting class relations.5

1. In essence, civilisation is a practical thing.

Marx said, “Civilisation is a practical thing.” This means civilisation falls under the category of practice and is practical in nature. Practice is the material activity through which people transform the objective world. Labor is the fundamental form of practice. Without labor, there would be neither labor practice nor humanity and human social civilisation. Practice did not only enable humanity to create civilsation but also promoted the development of social civilisation. In their (labor) practice, there exists a dual – relationship interaction between subjects (humans engaged in practice) and objects (the objective world in the field of practice): The objects constantly turn into subjects, and the nature at ease becomes a humanised nature while the subjects keep becoming objects, leaving their prints on nature and turning into materialised objective targets. This dialectical unity between subjects and objects in practice shows that while transforming the objective world and creating the material world, people are also changing the objective world and creating a material world. The combination of these positive material and intellectual results are civilisation—a state of progress at certain stages of the development of human society. In this sense, civilisation is essentially the material and intellectual result of people’s essential strength becoming the target in the process of practice (labor practice, interaction practice and creation practice). This result reflects the state and tendency of civilisation. This is why in this sense; civilisation is essentially a practical thing.


2. Civilisation is the practice of everyday life based on different time and space.

Marx’s statement about civilisation and practice shows that:

First, as a concept of practical value, civilisation proves the turning of the essential human strength into the target and the value of practice. Humanity created civilisation in practice, and in turn, it proved the value of the practice of humanity and raised the level of civilisation. Civilisation also led humanity to evolve from the barbarous state of living, and improved the quality of human survival. Moreover, it paved the development through the process of constantly creating new production tools and promoting the progress of productive forces.

Second, civilisation is a concept of practical time and space. Civilisation is both diachronic and synchronic, that is, it has conspicuous regional characteristics—geographical civilisation. This is precisely because the time and space of the practice of civilisation differ from the East to the West; they have different civilisations and different cultures for different races and ethnicities.

Third, civilisation is a concept of practice of everyday life. Civilisation is a positive, progressive, and human way of living people have in a certain era and a given society. It includes specific living conditions, norms, customs, relations, content, concepts and other factors for civilised lives. These civilised lives distinguish humans from animals and tell the different levels, quality and degrees of development humanity has had in different times. Different practical living needs that result from different regions and historical conditions to give rise to the different needs of people for development and enable them to create different civilisations and cultures. The differences, conflicts and rivalries between different civilisations in the world reflect the long – term practice of lives in different regions.

Different civilisations and cultures developed by one generation after another based on their long-term living practice naturally exclude each other. It is natural for different civilisations to enter into rivalry. When rivalry involves the interests of peoples and nations and is affected by the needs of capital, it will reach an unprecedented level of acuteness. Therefore, when economic globalisation deepens, it is necessary to build a global community of shared future that would serve as the target and means for promoting the contact, exchange, and integration of different civilisations. In addition, this could minimise the negative impact that the rivalry and conflict of different civilisations may have.

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About the Author

Bao Zonghao is professor of philosophy at the School of Humanities, East China University of Science and Technology; president of Shanghai Academy of Huaxia Social Development Research; distinguished research fellow at Urban Culture E-institute of Shanghai Higher Education.


1. The mid-term result of the major project “Research on Promoting the Balanced Development of Material Progress and Cultural and Ethical Progress: The Theory, Practice, and System of Culturally Advanced Cities over the Past Ten Years” (Approval Document No. 15ZDC007) funded through NSSFC.

2. About Author: Bao Zonghao, Professor of East China University of Science and Technology,  President of Shanghai  Academy of Huaxia Social Development Research

3. Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Chinese ed., People’s Publishing House, Beijing, vol. 1, 2009, p. 97.

4. Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society, Chinese ed., The Commercial Press, Shanghai, 1977, p. 28.

5. Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Chinese ed., People’s Publishing House, Beijing, vol. 3, 2009, p. 258.

6. Bao Zonghao, “Research on Civilization in Contemporary China from a New Perspective,” Academic Monthly, No. 5, 2011.

7. Bao Zonghao and Xiang Kun, A New Model of Urban Civilization in Contemporary China, Xuelin Press, Shanghai, 2015, pp. 40–41.

8. Bao Zonghao and Xiang Kun, The Civilization Index of Chinese Cities, Xuelin Press, Shanghai, 2015, p. 31.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.