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p. 315. The first Marxismlocked

  • Peter Singer


Marx had developed two important ideas: that economics is the chief form of human alienation and that the material force needed to liberate humanity from its domination by the capitalist system lies in the working class. ‘The first Marxism’ looks at how Marx began his immense study of economics in 1844 and outlines the ideas he formed at this time, culminating in his greatest work, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Marx advocated the abolition of wages, alienated labour, and private property in one blow: in a word, communism. The 1844 version of Marxism is a speculative philosophy of history rather than a scientific study. The aim of world history is human freedom.

A critique of economics

Marx had now developed two important new ideas. The first is that the chief form of human alienation is not philosophical nor religious, but economic, grounded in the way we satisfy our material wants; and the second is that the material force needed to liberate humanity from its domination by the capitalist system lies in the working class. Up to this stage, however, Marx had made these points only briefly, in essays ostensibly on other topics. Marx’s next step was to use these ideas as the basis of a new and systematic world-view, one that would transform and supplant the Hegelian system and all prior transformations of it.

Marx began his critical study of economics in 1844. It was to culminate in his greatest work, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, the first volume of which was published in 1867, with later volumes appearing after Marx’s death. So the work Marx produced in Paris, known as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, was the initial instalment of a project that was to occupy him, in one form or another, for the rest of his life.

The 1844 version of Marxism was not published until 1932. The manuscript consists of a number of disconnected sections, some obviously incomplete. Nevertheless, we can see what Marx was p. 32trying to do. He begins with a Preface that praises Feuerbach as the author of the only writings ‘since Hegel’s Phenomenology and Logic to contain a real theoretical revolution’ (EPM 30). There are then sections on the economics of wages, profits, and rent, in which Marx quotes liberally from the founding fathers of classical economics like J.-B. Say and Adam Smith. The point of this, as Marx explains, is to show that according to classical economics the worker becomes a commodity, the production of which is subject to the ordinary laws of supply and demand. If the supply of workers exceeds the demand for labour, wages fall and some workers starve. Wages therefore tend to the lowest possible level compatible with keeping an adequate supply of workers alive.

Marx draws another important point from the classical economists. Those who employ the workers—the capitalists—build up their wealth through the labour of their workers. They become wealthy by keeping for themselves a certain amount of the value their workers produce. Capital is nothing else but accumulated labour. The worker’s labour increases the employer’s capital. This increased capital is used to build bigger factories and buy more machines. More sophisticated machinery increases the division of labour, thus putting more self-employed workers out of business. Now the formerly self-employed workers have no option but to sell their labour on the market. This intensifies the competition among workers trying to get work, and lowers wages.

All this Marx presents as deductions from the presuppositions of orthodox economics. Marx himself is not writing as an economist. He wants to rise above the level of the science of economics, which, he says, simply takes for granted such things as private property, greed, competition, and so on, saying nothing about the extent to which apparently accidental circumstances are really the expression of a necessary course of development. Marx wants to ask larger questions, ignored by economists, such as ‘What in the evolution of mankind is the meaning of this reduction of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour?’ (By ‘abstract labour’ p. 33Marx means work done simply in order to earn a wage, rather than for the worker’s own specific purposes. Thus making a pair of shoes because one wants a pair of shoes is not abstract labour; making a pair of shoes because that happens to be a way of getting money is.) Marx, in other words, wants to give a deeper explanation of the meaning and significance of the laws of economics.

Alienated labour

What type of explanation does Marx have in mind? The answer is apparent from the section of the manuscripts entitled ‘Alienated Labour’. Here Marx explains the implications of economics in terms that consciously parallel Feuerbach’s critique of religion:

the more the worker externalizes himself in his work, the more powerful becomes the alien, objective world that he creates opposite himself, the poorer he becomes himself in his inner life and the less he can call his own. It is just the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object and this means that it no longer belongs to him but to the object … The externalization of the worker in his product implies not only that his labour becomes an object, an exterior existence but also that it exists outside him, independent and alien, and becomes a self-sufficient power opposite him, that the life that he has lent to the object affronts him, hostile and alien.

(EPM 81)

The central point is more pithily stated in a sentence preserved in the notebooks Marx used when studying the classical economists, in preparation for the writing of the 1844 manuscripts: ‘We can see how economics rigidifies the alienated form of social intercourse, as the essential, original form that corresponds to man’s nature’ (M 126).

This is the gist of Marx’s objection to classical economics. Marx examines economics from a perspective that is broader and more p. 34historically grounded than that taken by classical economists. Whereas economics rests on presupposing private property, competition, and individuals who single-mindedly pursue personal enrichment, Marx argues that these phenomena are to be found only in a particular condition of human existence, a condition of alienation. In contrast to Hegel, whom Marx praises for grasping the self-development of man as a historical process, the classical economists take the present alienated condition of human society as its ‘essential, original and definitive form’. They fail to see that it is a necessary but temporary stage in the evolution of mankind.

Next, Marx turns to the present alienated state of humanity. One of his premises is that ‘man is a species-being’. The idea is taken directly from Feuerbach who in turn derived it from Hegel. Hegel, as we saw, told the story of human development in terms of the progress of a single Mind, of which individual human minds are particular manifestations. Feuerbach scrubbed out the super-Mind, and rewrote Hegel in less mysterious human terms; but he retained the idea that human beings are in some sense a unity. For Feuerbach the basis of this unity, and the essential difference between humans and animals, is the ability of humans to be conscious of their species. It is because they are conscious of their existence as a species that human beings can see themselves as individuals (that is, as one among others), and it is because humans see themselves as a species that human reason and human powers are unlimited. Human beings partake in perfection—which, according to Feuerbach, they mistakenly attribute to God instead of themselves—because they are part of a species.

Marx transforms Feuerbach, making the conception of man as a species-being still more concrete. For Marx, ‘productive life is species-life’ (EPM 90). It is in activity, in production, that humans show themselves to be species-beings. In support of this claim, Marx points out that while animals produce only to satisfy their immediate needs, and in preset ways, as a spider weaves a web, p. 35human beings can produce according to universal standards. They can create things for which they have no immediate need, bounded only by the limits of their imagination and their sense of beauty.

On this view, labour in the sense of free productive activity is the essence of human life. Whatever is made in this way—a statue, a house, or a piece of cloth—is therefore the essence of human life made into a physical object. Marx calls this ‘the objectification of the species-life of man’ (EPM 91). Ideally the objects workers have freely created would be theirs to keep or dispose of as they wish. Under conditions of alienated labour, workers must produce objects over which they have no control, because the products of their labour belong to their employers. The employers then sell these objects, profiting from their sale, and increasing their capital. In this way the workers’ products are used to increase the wealth and power of the employers. Thus the workers are alienated from the products of their labour. They are also alienated from their activity, because they have sold their labour-time to capitalists, who control them and compel them to work long hours of repetitive, mindless factory work. Because workers are no longer able to produce freely in accordance with their imagination—and that was, Marx thought, what distinguishes us from non-human animals—workers are alienated from their species-being.

These three ways in which workers are alienated—from the products of labour, from their activity, and from their species-being—lead to a fourth. For workers, productive activity becomes ‘activity under the domination, coercion and yoke of another man’—the capitalist employer. This other human being becomes an alien, hostile being. Instead of humans relating to each other cooperatively, they relate competitively. Love and trust are replaced by bargaining and exchange. Human beings cease to recognize in each other their common human nature; instead they see others as instruments for furthering their own egoistic interests. They are alienated from their common humanity.

p. 36That, in brief, is Marx’s first critique of economics. Since in his view it is economic life rather than Mind or consciousness that is ultimately real, this critique is his account of what is really wrong with the present condition of humanity. The next question is: What can be done about it?

Marx rejects the idea that anything would be achieved by an enforced wage rise. Labour for wages is not free productive activity. It is merely a means to an end. Marx describes higher wages as nothing but ‘a better payment of slaves’ that does nothing to restore significance or dignity to workers (EPM 93). Instead, Marx advocates the abolition of wages, alienated labour, and private property in one blow: in a word, communism. He introduces communism in terms befitting the closing chapter of a Hegelian epic:

Communism … is the genuine solution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man. It is the true solution of the struggle between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution to the riddle of history and knows itself to be this solution.

(EPM 97)

One might expect Marx to go on and explain in some detail what communism would be like. He does not—in fact despite the vital importance that communism has in his philosophy, nowhere in his writings does he give more than sketchy suggestions about what a communist society would be like. He does, however, gesture at the enormous difference communism would make. All human senses, he claims, are degraded by private property. The dealer in minerals sees the market value of the jewels he handles, not their beauty. In the alienated condition caused by private property we cannot appreciate anything except by possessing it, or using it as a means. The abolition of private property will liberate our senses from this alienated condition, and enable us to appreciate the world in a truly human way. Just p. 37as the musical ear perceives a wealth of meaning and beauty where the unmusical ear can find none, so will the senses of social human beings differ from those of the unsocial.

The significance of ‘the first Marxism’

These are the essential points of ‘the first Marxism’. It is manifestly not a scientific enterprise, at least not in the sense in which we understand science today. Its theories are not derived from detailed observations or factual studies, nor subjected to controlled tests or observations.

The first Marxism is more down to earth than Hegel’s philosophy of history, but it is still a speculative philosophy of history rather than a scientific study. The aim of world history is human freedom. Human beings are not now free, for they are unable to organize the world so as to satisfy their needs and develop their human capacities. Private property, though a human creation, dominates and enslaves human beings. Ultimate liberation, however, is not in doubt; it is philosophically necessary. The immediate task of revolutionary theory is to understand in what way the present situation is a stage in the dialectical progress to liberation. Then it will be possible to encourage the movements that will end the present stage, ushering in the new age of freedom.

Marx’s writings after 1844—including all the works which made him famous—are reworkings, modifications, developments, and extensions of the themes of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. The number and bulk of these writings make it impossible to discuss each work adequately. (Their repetitiveness would also make it extremely tedious.) So from here on I shall depart slightly from a strict chronological account. I shall begin by tracing the development of the materialist conception of history, which Marx himself described as the ‘guiding thread for my studies’ (P 425), and Engels, in his funeral oration by Marx’s grave, hailed as Marx’s chief discovery, comparable with Darwin’s p. 38discovery of the theory of evolution. This will occupy Chapters 6 and 7. In Chapter 8 I shall consider Marx’s economic works, principally, of course, Capital. Since Capital was written only after Marx had arrived at the materialist conception of history, the departure from chronological order in these chapters will be slight. It will be greater in Chapter 9, the last of these expository chapters, which will assemble from passages of varying vintage Marx’s thoughts on communism, revolution, and on the ethical principles underlying his preference for a communist rather than a capitalist form of society.