*Notes from a DSA study group I led on Marx, 2017. Page numbers refer to Karl Marx: Selected Writings (David McLellan, ed., second edition).
The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (pp. 82-120) are among Marx’s most significant writings. They are certainly the most controversial among Marxists themselves—the legacy of these manuscripts has been fiercely debated since they were first discovered, translated, and published in 1932. The immense—and still unfinished—project of compiling the collected works of Marx and Engels began in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, under the direction of David Riazanov at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. Riazanov played a central role in acquiring and publishing some of the early writings of the young Marx, including The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. These were written by a 26 year-old Marx during his brief time in Paris, expressing a more humanist side which was concerned with the forms of alienation under capitalism, and which hazily conceptualized communism as the collective fulfillment of humanity’s creative potential.
The discovery of Marx’s early writings, which find him engaging with Hegelian dialectics and various philosophical strands of humanism, were met with vehement repression from the Soviet Union. Even before the publication of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Georg Lukács’ essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” had brilliantly reconstructed the Hegelian roots of Marx’s thought by way of his concepts of exchange value and commodity fetishism. For his efforts, Lukács was condemned by the Fifth Comintern Congress of 1924 and forced to publicly recant his ideas. Riazanov’s fate was more tragic: he was arrested by Stalin’s secret police in 1931, accused of assisting a Menshevik counter-revolution, deported to a forced labor camp, and finally executed in 1938. Stalin’s forces also quickly terminated the project of obtaining and publishing the collected works of Marx and Engels, which Riazanov had begun.
In the face of state repression, a dissident form of so-called Western Marxism began to develop in the years between the two World Wars. Western Marxists assigned greater significance to the writings of young Marx, particularly his concept of alienation, and at the same time moved away from the economism and scientific positivism which dominated the official Marxism of the Communist International. An array of eclectic thinkers, including Gramsci, Korsch, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, Sartre, and Lefebvre, represented a new kind of Marxism, one which would be profoundly shaped by the Left’s tragic series of defeats across Western Europe in the interwar years.
The impetus for translating and publishing Marx’s writings shifted accordingly toward the West in the post-war years. The first English edition of the Economic Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, translated by Tom Bottomore, would be published in 1959 by Lawrence & Wishart. Some of Marx’s other early writings presented his most trenchant critique of the state as he struggled to transcend Hegelian philosophy. The anti-statism of the young Marx stood in glaring contradiction with Stalinism, and so the task of translating and publishing these writings was taken up by dissidents like the independent French scholar Maximilien Rubel. Rubel charged that Stalin “could not tolerate the publication in its entirety of an oeuvre that stigmatized his despotism via the merciless struggle waged by Marx and Engels against police states.”
Western Marxism would later provide an intellectual foundation for the New Left. The Marxist intellectual Marshall Berman recalled that as a teenager in 1959 he bought twenty copies of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and distributed them as gifts for Hannukah. He remembered the day he walked into a bookstore called Four Continents located near Union Square in New York City and found them priced at 50 cents apiece:
The clerk said that, after sales taxes, twenty copies would cost about $11. I ran back to the rear, grabbed the books, and said, “You’ve just solved my Hanukkah problem.” As I schlepped the books on the subway up to the Bronx (Four Continents tied them up in a nice parcel), I felt I was walking on air. For the next several days I walked around with a stack of books, thrilled to be giving them away to all the people in my life: my mother and sister, my girlfriend, her parents, several old and new friends, a couple of my teachers, the man from the stationary store, a union leader (the past summer, I’d worked for District 65), a doctor, a rabbi. I’d never given so many gifts before (and never did again). Nobody refused the book, but I got some weird looks from people when I breathlessly delivered my spiel. “Take this!” I said, shoving the book in their faces. “It’ll knock you out. It’s by Karl Marx, but before he became Karl Marx. It’ll show you how our whole life’s wrong, but it’ll make you happy, too. If you don’t get it, just call me anytime, and I’ll explain it all. Soon everybody will be talking about it, and you’ll be the first to know.”
I love that anecdote. When I moved to New York in 2012, Marshall Berman was one of the first people I sought out. I sent him a half-drunken blathering fanboy email: “Your book [All That Is Solid Melts Into Air] changed my life blah blah blah.” He graciously agreed to meet me, at a diner on 100th and Broadway called the Metro Diner, a couple of blocks near his UWS apartment. We had a friendly chat but he chided me for not having read enough fiction. Marshall and I shared an interest in graffiti and the street art sprouting up all over NYC, especially in Brooklyn. It turns out that his youngest son had been graffiti artist until he got busted, and so now he just takes pictures of the stuff. We made an informal date to go out to Bushwick and check things out, but on the day in question it was raining and we decided to take a rain check. But for my birthday in 2013, my girlfriend arranged for us to all go to the movies together (?!?) and we saw Rosemary’s Baby (?!?!?) at the Film Forum—certainly one of my New Yorkiest moments. That was the last time I saw him. That fall, I had just finished teaching class when I got a text from my gf saying that there was news he had died. Sure enough, Marshall had a heart attack in the very same Metro Diner we had met at, and on September 11 no less—the guy had spent his whole life writing about and teaching in New York, so it was somehow fittingly tragic. We went to his funeral service, and the speakers were like an all-star lineup of New York’s old New Left—Todd Gitlin, Robert Christgau, Michael Sorkin, etc. His 18 year old son cried when he spoke, and we all cried at least a little with him. I came away from the funeral thinking, “now that’s how you live a good life.” Anyway, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Berman
Enough about Marshall—but if you want to know more, just ask because I’d love to tell more stories. I’ll have more to say about his book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air when we read the Communist Manifesto, but for now let’s go back to the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. These unfinished writings build upon Marx’s critique of the religion and the state from 1843, applying his insights about alienation in the realm of religion toward the conditions of labor under capitalism. In the preface (83-85), Marx retraces his steps through his intellectual development to that point, from Hegel to the young Hegelians and especially to Ludwig Feuerbach, whose work was especially influential for Marx in 1844-45. Feuerbach had argued that God was nothing but a creation of humanity and a project of our imaginations, but the relationship had been inverted such that people came to believe that it was God who created and controlled them. Marx wrote that Feuerbach’s works are the only “to contain a real theoretical revolution” since Hegel (p. 84).
McLellan has edited the manuscripts into four sections. The first, on alienated labor (pp. 85-95), is the most most important and influential, and should be read closely. Marx begins with a critique of political economy, the academic discipline that would be called economics in our time, which basically says that political economy is loaded with assumptions which are totally ideological and yet unspoken and taken-for-granted. The core assumption of political economy is that private property is treated as natural, unquestionable, and unchangeable—it “starts with the fact of private property, it does not explain to us” (85). Indeed, this is how ideology works, it’s not that ideology is wrong or false per se, but it’s loaded with these assumptions that are simply taken-for-granted, and these assumptions are ones most consistent with the self-interests of the ruling class. Thus, on p. 86: “The only wheels that political economy sets in motion are greed and war among the greedy, competition.” To this day, so many fields of scientific knowledge masquerade as objective and neutral, and yet are loaded with all sorts of unspoken assumptions that are consistent with the interests of capitalism. Not much has changed in the garbage discipline of mainstream economics.
The discussion of alienation on pp. 86-91 is important enough to deserve a close reading—it’s one of Marx’s most influential passages. Marx describes four ways in which workers are alienated (or “estranged” in some translations) under conditions of capitalism. He begins by describing how workers are alienated from the things they create or produce under capitalist conditions of work. Again with the imagery that reminds me of Frankenstein: the product of labor “confronts it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer” (86). Marx makes a key distinction between objectification and alienation, concepts which Hegel conflates but are crucial to distinguish for Marx. Objectification means that humans, in the nature of our “species being,” are driven to create and make our ideas and imagination into objects—like I have to make my knowledge into a book, or you have to make your music into an album, or you have to do a painting or cultivate a garden or whatever, we all have to turn our creative powers into an object, and that’s human. When those objects of our creativity are owned and controlled by someone else, we lose a vital part of ourselves, our species being. That’s alienation. But for Marx it’s possible to have objectification without alienation, if we control the creative process and the product is an authentic expression of ourselves. For Hegel, objectification is alienation because creative labour is all in the mind, a matter of consciousness, so if we externalize and objectify it, it’s immediately lost, like the object can never truly realize the purity of thought. More on this later.
So on p. 87 we encounter the analogy with religion, via Feuerbach: just as we create God but imagine that God creates and rules over us, so too do we create the world through our labor and yet it seems that the world rules over us, its helpless instruments. Marx straight out tells us: “It is just the same as in religion.” And it is a zero-sum game, for the more is externalized into this alien object, the more we are robbed of something intrinsic to us: “The more man puts into God, the less he puts into himself”; and so likewise, “the more the worker externalizes himself in his work, the more powerful becomes the alien, objective world that he creates opposite himself.” Basically, workers are made to be poor at the same time they make the world rich, so that workers create wealth and yet it seems like without the wealthy there would be no work; the wealthy seem like the “job creators,” when in fact it is the workers who are the wealth creators. The moment of truth comes during strikes and work stoppages, where it becomes evident that if workers stop working then nothing get done, and that’s where we suddenly discover our collective power in a world where we ordinarily feel powerless, and our employers get nervous.
Under capitalism, the things that workers create are estranged, outside of themselves—“independent and alien,” “a self-sufficient power opposite him,” “hostile and alien”; Marx even says The worker “becomes a slave to his object” (p. 87). This passage always reminds me of the movie Alien, where this thing grows inside you, pops out of your chest, and tries to kill you. In Marx’s time, alienated work was mainly physical labor, but in our times consider the “emotional labor” of service sector work, or even sex work—under alienated conditions, our emotions and our bodies and maybe even our sexualities are commodified, objectified into something separate from our inner selves, so that we have to fake it for the sake of our job, even if we don’t feel like it inside. So then do the most intimate part of ourselves—our emotions, bodies, sexualities—become hostile, alien, objective forces in conflict with our inner self? We can speculate that although workers may be better compensated with a higher standard of living than in Marx’s time, workers today are actually suffering from greater depths of alienation. And so just as the more people put into the God, the less they are themselves, likewise the more people work to create wealth for others, the less they have for themselves: on p. 88: “Labour produces works of wonder for the rich, but nakedness for the workers. It produces palaces, but only hovels for the worker; it producers beauty, but cripples the worker” and then finally “it produces culture, but imbecility and cretinism for the worker.”
Marx is suggesting that the capacity to produce in a creative, imaginative way is fundamental to human nature—our “species being.” So under capitalism we are alienated from the things we produce, but more generally, and perhaps more tragically, we are robbed of an essential part of ourselves, our capacity to create. This is the second dimension of alienation. The worker “feels miserable instead of happy, deploys no free physical and intellectual energy, but instead mortifies his body and ruins his mind” (88). Creativity—not necessarily “work”—should make us feel fulfilled, should make us feel human in the most fundamental sense, but when we’re working someone else’s profit it does the opposite, and so workers come to define themselves by what they do outside of work—we are at home when not working, not at home when we are working, and when we don’t have to work, “labour is avoided like the plague” (88). Again, today it’s different than in the 19th century, better in some ways but maybe worse in others. Today, we’re told “do what you love,” at least in the highly educated sectors of the professional middle class, so the expectation is that we’ll have an un-alienated job that fulfills us, a job that doesn’t just pay the bills but defines who we are, so that when people ask what you do at a party, you can proudly talk about your job and identify yourself with your career. And yet how many of us really get to experience that ideal, how many of us really get to do what we love? How does a workplace driven by profits and bottom lines ultimately constrict our ability to do what we love?
Marx’s argument that creativity is an essential part of our species-being leads him to a discussion of what makes humanity unique in comparison to other animals (pp.89-90) He talks about eating, drinking, and “procreating,” as “truly human functions”: that is to say, all animals need to eat, drink, and fuck in order to survive and reproduce, but still there is something qualitatively different about how humans perform these animal functions. It’s important to understand the uniqueness of the dialectical philosophy in this regard: whereas Anglo-empirical perspectives have consistently asked, “nature or nurture?” the dialectical method says it’s both/and, not either/or. So like our biological needs for drinking, eating, and fucking also develop and evolve and respond to new historical needs; they’re both natural and social/historical, because human nature is historical and social, the question “nature or nature” is the wrong way to approach things, it’s both/and not either/or. Eating, drinking, and fucking are animal functions, but they change and get better and more complex, and ultimately become more satisfying, as people’s needs become more complex in the development of social history. Human beings are different because we need and want to perform these animal functions, but the way we do them is fundamentally shaped by history, society, and culture. The thing about us humans is that we use our imaginations, we fantasize and consciously plan to (pro-)create, and in doing so we stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us, we are historical beings in the sense that we learn from our predecessors. Our species being is historical, both biological and social, not “nature or nurture.”
On p. 90: whereas the animal is “immediately one with its vital activity” and “not distinct from it,” humans engage in “conscious vital activity” in which their imagination and creativity makes our activity distinct from biological instinct.
And so as humanity is alienated under capitalism from both the things we produce and the creative process of producing them, then Marx’s third dimension of alienation is that we are alienated from our “human essence” (p. 91). And since that human essence is fundamentally social—cooperating and coordinating with other people—it means that we have a fourth dimension of alienation in which people are estranged from each other, like they experience one another as hostile forces to be competed with, not to be cooperated with. And so this concludes Marx’s discussion of the four dimensions of alienation.
So then Marx posits an opposing force, the master in its dynamic with the slave, “the alien power above man can be neither the gods nor nature, only man himself” (92). The source of alienation is social, “alien, hostile, powerful, and independent” and results in domination and oppression. It is not natural or supernatural, though it certainly seems like it—it is social. We live in a topsy-turvy world, where everything is inverted and “pregnant with its contrary.” It’s labor that creates the world, and the wealth of capital is the product of noting but labor, like labor is primary and capital feeds on it like a parasite, but the way things appear is that capital creates labor, they are the “job creators.” This is why strikes are so powerful, because they reveal the collective power of workers and the fact that if people don’t work then nothing gets done. But the field of “political economy” is built on the assumption that capital is source of wealth and productivity—it “attributes nothing to labour and everything to private property” (93). It reverses cause and effect in this topsy-turvy world: the effect, created by people, is mistaken for the cause, our creator. Again, this is what ideology does.
We can see that Marx sees this relationship between labor and private property as part of Hegel’s master-slave dynamic: an unequal unity of opposing forces, who unable to reconcile but also totally dependent on each other, and so progress can only happen when these opposing forces fight it out, resulting in a new synthesis. On p. 93 we find rejecting the proposal of “socialists” in the 1840s who only demanded higher wages for workers—this “would only mean a better payment of slaves,” and it would not give “meaning and worth” to either the worker or the product of their work. Marx is beginning to imagine that a proletarian revolution will finally break the chains of master-slave dynamic of history—“general human emancipation is contained in their emancipation” (94).
The section “Private Property and Communism” (95-102) provides us with the first description of what Marx thinks Communism would and should look like, how it would resolve these fundamental, longstanding conflicts within humanity. He begins by criticizing other ideas and thinkers from the time, zeroing in on French anarchists and socialists Proudhon, Saint-Simon, and Charles Fourier, all of whom would be a favorite target of Marx’s in the years to come. It’s clear he’s been reading French socialist literature, but what makes Marx unique is that he’s also putting it into dialogue with his German philosophical training in Hegel and dialectics, and that dialogue between French socialism and German philosophy is leading him to some original conclusions. Marx criticizes certain of state socialism that ownership of the fruits of alienated labor should simply be distributed more equitably—what today might be called an ownership society or stakeholder society. Marx says this is like “universal prostitution” (96) rather than emancipation. He then says that the relationship between men and women is the prism from which humanity’s relationship to nature and “the whole cultural level” can be judged—i.e. as domination and exploitation. So equitable distribution is not what Marx wants, he wants the abolition of alienated labor and private property, a wholesale change and radical turn in social relationships. So here is one of the rare places where Marx is telling us what he thinks communism will look like, at least from a philosophical perspective: “the complete and conscious return of man conserving all the riches of previous development for man himself as a social, i.e human being.” Marx tells us that communism means enabling and empowering people to fully develop themselves as individuals, by returning people to their social self and their relationships with others, which is natural and what makes us human. This full development of people as social beings is “the solution to the riddle of history” in the sense that it will overcome and transcend all these polarities, divisions that have defined history to the point—freedom and necessity, individual and species, etc. (97) It is nothing less than the total abolition of alienation as such: “the positive abolition of all alienation, thus the return of man out of religion, family, state, etc. into human, i.e. social being.” (98). With the abolition of alienation and private property, there is a restoration of a sense of unity between humanity and nature, and among people themselves “society completes the essential unity of man and nature, it is the genuine resurrection of nature, the accomplished naturalism of man and the accomplished humanism of nature.” (98). And this flies in the face of the libertarian ideal that human nature is individualistic, greedy, competitive: “It is above all necessary to avoid restoring society as a fixed abstraction opposed to the individual. The individual is the social being.” (99).
A vital place where nature, society, and species being converge is in the human senses, which are natural both also thoroughly shaped by society and culture. Different cultures and people at different historical times can have wildly varying tastes in thinking whether something looks good, sounds good, tastes good, etc. Just as the need for eating, drinking, and procreating is natural but also social and historical, the senses are shaped by society in ways that Marx suggests become more complex, refined, and fully human over time. So on p. 100 he discusses how the eye becomes a “human eye” when we begin to see “a social, human object produced by man and destined for him.” Overcoming alienation means not only getting back in touch with our natural senses, it means unleashing the power of individuals to develop their senses to their highest potential, with each generation building on the last. We could think about the eye in relation to photography, the ear in relation to music, taste in relation to food, etc: “the human eye enjoys things differently from the crude. inhuman eye, the human ear differently from the crude ear, etc.” Overcoming alienation will make us fully human, not by returning us to some static, ahistorical “human nature,” but instead by allowing us to develop our best selves in relation to society and history, that’s what it means to realize our “species-being.”
Under capitalism, Marx suggests, our senses are deformed because we get so wrapped up in try to own or capture something instead of being or experiencing it—this mode of having rather than mode of being, as Erich Fromm called it, has “made us so stupid and narrow-minded that an object is only ours when we have it,” and in capitalism to have something is to possess and consume it—“to possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit, etc. in short, when we use it.” Our senses are alienated in this mode of having, which is so much more extensive in our consumer culture today than it was in Marx’s time. Consumption substitutes for experience, to the detriment of both our natural and our social selves: The mode of “having” is dulling our senses.
The discussion of society, nature, and the senses leads into one about the natural sciences on pp. 102-04. The natural sciences are inseparable from industrialization, from capitalist domination over people and the planet, but they also contain the germ of emancipation: natural science “prepared for human emancipation, even though in the first place it leads to complete dehumanization” (102). Advances in the sciences take the form of exploitation and domination under capitalism, but it’s possible that they can take more humanizing forms in developing a more harmonious, reciprocal relationship with nature—at that time, science will “lose its one-sidedly materialistic, or rather idealistic, orientation and becomes the basis of human science” (102). So again here the dialectic suggests that exploitation is pregnant with the seeds of emancipation.
Marx is again describing Communism as both a kind of advancement for human progress and a return to our original species-being, getting back in touch with nature that we’ve become alienated from at the same time that we develop ourselves to our fullest potential. We are becoming more human and more natural by getting in touch with our power to create, our labour. Under Marx’s vision Communism, people will finally, for the first time in history, have the power to create themselves instead of being created by alien forces, be they religion, capital, or the state. For the first time in history, nothing is greater than us, nothing dominates us, we are in charge of making our world and making history and making ourselves as we work work together with other people in harmony with nature. Instead of dominating nature, we recognize that we are inseparable from nature: “for socialist man what is called world history is nothing but the creation of man by human labour and the development of nature for man” (104). Notice how Marx’s dialectical thinking about humanity and nature—they are not the same, but they cannot be separated either—differs the dominant Western ideals from the Industrial Revolution, which is based on the idea that nature is something separate and alien from us, something to conquer and dominate and master. Whereas Marx’s vision of Communism is one where the rift between humanity and nature has healed, where we recognize that we are inextricably part of nature, and therefore we work with nature in ways that are more harmonious and sustainable.
I recommend that you skim most of the next section on “Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and General Philosophy” (104-118). There are a couple of good passages worth a closer look, but a lot of this section consists of arcane philosophical discourse that doesn’t say much beyond his prior engagements with Hegel. Marx restates his general critique of Hegel on p. 109: he credits Hegel with developing the concept of alienation, but the problem is that Hegel only conceived of it as a mental process of consciousness, whereas Marx is saying it’s more material than that, we are alienated in material terms from our capacity to labor, our life activity and not just our consciousness or thought, and so emancipation cannot simply be a matter of changing our thinking, we have to change the way we live in society, our social relationships, and specifically in the way we labour, so like our economic life, the social relationships in which we labour to transform nature. We don’t just develop our minds into the perfect thought, we develop our whole selves in relation to society, labour, and nature. “The only labour that Hegel recognizes it abstract, mental labour.” (110)
There’s an important passage on pp. 112-13 which clarifies what Marx means when he’s talking about “powers” and “needs.” Powers are “dispositions, capacities, instincts”: our abilities or at least our potential abilities that we can utilize to meet our needs. Humans have external needs, and we are dependent on objects outside of ourselves and other people to fulfill these needs—our powers are the ability to realize them. So here again Marx’s vision of Communism has nothing to do with asceticism or primitivism, he believes humans have needs and we suffer when we can’t fulfill those needs, in fact Marx sounds like a Buddhist on p. 113 when he says “Man is an objective sentient being is therefore a suffering being, and, since he is a being who feels his sufferings, a passionate being.” We want, we desire objects outside of ourselves, and that desire is the source of our suffering. But the difference is that Marx isn’t saying we should renounce these desires like a Buddhist monk might, instead we need to further develop our powers to meet those needs. And since our needs are social and historical, not just natural, the development of more complex and refined needs is actually a sign of historical progress—Marx is not a fan of the simple life.
Herein lies another important distinction between Hegel and Marx: Hegel basically equates objectification and alienation, while Marx says objectification is inevitable and not necessarily bad, whereas alienation is bad and needs to be overcome. For Hegel, everything is about ideas, thoughts, consciousness, etc. so objectification, turning an idea into an object, a thing, is necessarily alienation. Marx doesn’t agree. Our labor is an act of objectification—we put our ideas to work in the world, and this kind of labour is part of our creative species being, and when we control how we create these objects it fulfills us, it is an expression of who we are as an individual but also as a collective. The problem is that under capitalism we don’t have control over this process of creating objects through labor. Hegel’s vision of utopia is a kind of religious enlightenment, a transformation of consciousness—they would call it “mindfulness” today—whereas Marx’s vision of a social and material emancipation.
The last section of Money (118-120) is kinda different and quirky, certainly worth a closer read. This is basically where Marx identifies money as a thing makes human qualities turn into their opposite: “Does not my money thus change all my incapacities into their opposite?” Money is what turns the world upside down, it creates a topsy turvy world. Instead of just a medium of exchange between people, money becomes a cause rather than a medium, it makes the world go around. In the words of the Wu-Tang Clan, cash rules everything around us. And so in this money is the new God in this “inverted world.” It reduces everything to a quantifiable measure of exchange, all the qualitative differences and incompatible qualities are reduced to a single plane of price, cost, wage, etc. These about emerging ideas quantification and commodification, particularly how they create an upside down world, were essential to Marx’s later economic thought, particularly the first chapter of the first volume of Capital.