Rekindling the human spirit

September 25, 2012

Under capitalism, most people have no control not only over what they produce as workers, but over the very process of producing itself.

IN THE Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (discussed in my last column), Marx first identifies the proletariat as a "class with radical chains." But that essay is based on an analogy with the French Revolution of 1789 and is very vague when it comes to specific political or economic references. The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 are where Marx tries to figure out how the proletariat was created in a historical sense, why its chains are radical, and what the revolution it may lead will look like.

[Note: There is a long gap between my previous column and this one, to say the least! So go to "Getting Started with Marx and Engels" to see how this series will work, and check out the SW archives for previous columns.]

Karl Marx and his new bride Jenny arrived in Paris in the spring of 1844. Marx spent his time acquainting himself with the city's vibrant workers movement; preparing for the birth of the couple's first child, Jenny (on May 1, 1844); and immersing himself in the most important economic thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century: Ricardo, Smith, Sismondi and Say, among them.

Columnist: Todd Chretien

Todd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.

Starting in April 1844, he began writing commentaries on long passages from these authors, which he copied out into notebooks as the basis for drafts of what he hoped would become a quick series of articles or books. This turned out to be much harder than he expected; for instance, he didn't manage to publish Capital until 1867! His aim was to integrate a critique of Hegelian philosophy, the history of the European workers movement, and an understanding of capitalist economics.

As it turned out, the Manuscripts were not published in German until 1932, and not in English until 1959. Fascism, Stalinism and the Second World War relegated these writings to the margins of the socialist movements in the 1930s and 1940s, but they provided support for the thinking of a handful of theorists from various viewpoints--such as Raya Dunayevskaya (who rescued the Manuscripts from obscurity), Herbert Marcuse and George Lukacs, all of whom were critical of reformism and Stalinism.

With the rise of the mass movements of the 1960s, the Manuscripts (then more widely available) offered some writers hostile to official Soviet Marxism, based on the realpolitik of the Russian ruling class, a deeply humanist alternative view of Marx's ideas. In 1965, left-wing psychologist Eric Fromm organized an international symposium that attracted a wide array of intellectuals interested in Marxist philosophy.

Yet some leftists opposed this new interpretation of Marxism. For instance, the French Communist Party philosopher Louis Althusser drew radically different conclusions from the Manuscripts and insisted that there was an epistestimological break between the "young Marx" of the Manuscripts and the "mature Marx" of Capital. For a good explanation of the continuing relevance of these questions, see Chris Harman's review of Althusser: The Detour of History by George Elliot.

SO WHAT do the Manuscripts say?

Though often disjointed (many pages are missing in fact), they contain some of Marx's most moving condemnations of capitalism's crippling impact on the spirit, body and mind of people. He asserts the need for a worldly revolution to reunite the creativity, cooperation, curiosity and potential for love which constitute what he calls humanity's "species-being"--that is, what is truly intrinsic to human nature, which has been torn asunder by capitalist economics.

Marx begins a section entitled "Estranged Labor" not with a critique of religion or philosophy, but "from an actual economic fact. The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces." (p. 271, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 3. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975) Marx's studies led him to identify a malady specific to capitalism, which he termed "estrangement" or "alienation." Anyone familiar with Marx's writings will most likely have heard these terms before (most likely "alienation"), but it is important to consider the two senses in which Marx uses them.

On the one hand, Marx starts with psychology. He identifies that sinking feeling everyone knows who has ever felt their soul drained away, hour after hour, week after week, year after year, by a job you hate--or even a job you ought to love, but one whose joy is sucked dry by petty managers, sexual or racial harassment, budget cuts or simple monotony. As he puts it, under capitalism:

labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself, but denies himself, does not feel content, but unhappy, does not freely develop his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The workers therefore only feels himself outside of his work, and in his work, he feels outside himself. He feels at home when his is not working, and when he is not working, he does not feel himself. His labor is therefore not voluntary, it is coerced... is not his own, it someone else's...the worker only feels himself freely active in his animal functions--eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing up. (p. 274-275)

Sound familiar? Especially the last part, right?--sex and drugs and rock-n-roll. It's bad enough that you're forced to work for someone else and have no control (or very little control at best) over your working conditions--and that you have very little time left over after work to spend doing what makes you feel free and happy. Insert your favorite, "I'd rather be doing X" bumper sticker here.

But Marx is identifying an even bigger problem because work isn't just one of many human activities. Rather, cooperative labor is what makes humans different than other animals:

Man produces when he is freed from physical need and only truly produces in freedom thereof...Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty...this production is his active species-being. Through production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is therefore the objectification of man's species-life: for he duplicates himself not only as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-being. (p. 277)

HERE, MARX takes over Hegel's notion of history as manifestations of God or Absolute Spirit's "positivity." Hegel means historical forms and events are reflections or objectifications of Absolute Spirit's growing awareness of itself--literally, Absolute Spirit leaves a sort of "positive" or "objective" residue as it glides through the universe--it makes objects that we (people) experience: armies, kings, religions, countries, machines, etc.

Marx rejects this radically idealist concept (idealist in the sense that the ultimate big idea, "Absolute Spirit," is the moving force of history), but preserves the sense that objects produced in pre-capitalist societies by people can be thought of as embodiments (or objectifications) of human cooperation.

Under capitalism, this link between social labor and the objects people produce is severed--people are estranged or alienated not only from the things we produce, robbing us of our ability to "see ourselves in the world we create," but also from the very cooperative process by which we produce them. Not only do we lose free time to do the things we really love, but we lose any power over the very activity that makes us human--that is, labor. To use Marx's terms, the problem is not objectification (the process and product of labor) per se, but rather the alienation (loss) of control over our work and the mutilation of our species-being.

But why does this happen? Marx emphasizes the spiritual or psychological damage caused by alienation, but emphatically argues that its root cause lies in an economic process (the second aspect of alienation), whereby the rich come to dominate the working class by means of amassing private property and political power. That is, it is an objective, economic relationship that gives rise to the psychological feeling of loss and not the other way around. He writes:

labor produces wonderful things for the rich--but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces--but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty, but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of workers back into a barbarous type of labor, and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence, but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism. (p. 273)

While this is a powerful condemnation of the power of capitalists over the working class, Marx here sees the working class primarily as victims. After all, if their lot is stupidity and cretinism, it is not at all clear how they can change their circumstances. It is safe to say that Marx continues to see the working class as the potential "heart," but not the "head" of social change, as he had written previously in the Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.

Earlier in the Manuscripts, Marx presents a highly schematic explanation of how the capitalists came to control private property and force workers into this predicament. This condition, he argues, cannot be overcome by means of religious conversion or enlightened ideas or even substantial reforms because society has been divided into two hostile camps, and what benefits the capitalists necessarily takes a terrible toll on the workers. Marx goes as far as to argue that "an increase of wages would therefore be nothing but better payment for the slave and would not win either for the worker or for labor [i.e., all workers] their human status and dignity." (p. 280)

SO WHAT is his solution?

In a section called "Private Property and Communism," Marx for the first time identifies himself as a communist.

As was his habit, he begins this section by a ruthless criticism of ideas he considered deficient, including, in this case, virtually all other notions of communism then current on the European left. The first half of this section is difficult to follow, as Marx is using shorthand and sometimes doesn't even seem sure of exactly what he is opposing in the doctrines of early communist or socialist thinkers such as Proudhon, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet or Owen. Nevertheless, he writes that these authors were on to something, and that if properly connected with a rising social force, "Communism is the riddle of history solved." (p. 297)

At bottom, Marx's disagreement with all preceding communist authors (and Young Hegelian philosophers) is that they focused almost exclusively on trying to change people's minds by force of argument or by elaborating plans for a future utopia. They remain trapped in a circular discussion. But, Marx writes:

subjectity and objectivity, spirituality and materiality, activity and suffering lose their antithetical character, and thus their existence as such antitheses only within the framework of society. We see how the resolution of the theoretical antitheses is only possible in a practical way, by virtue of the practical energy of man. Their resolution is therefore by no means merely a problem of understanding, but a real problem of life, which philosophy could not solve precisely because it could conceive their problem as merely a theoretical one. (p. 302)

A little later on in the next section, Marx summarizes all this with a characteristically clever turn of phrase: "In order to abolish the idea of private property, the idea of communism is quite sufficient. It takes actual communist action to abolish actual private property." (313)

This plea for practical action led Marx to break his ties with most of his previous collaborators. Worse still, from his Young Hegalian friends' viewpoint, Marx was coming to believe that ordinary workers (describing Parisian workers perhaps a little romantically, he writes that "the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies"), and not the intelligentsia, would bring about this "communist action."

As I will describe in my next column, a strike of textile workers in Germany in 1844 led Marx to believe that his hope for a "class with radical chains" was finally taking root in real life. But in the Manuscripts, Marx generally describes the impact of capitalism on the individual worker and, as yet, only presents the idea of communist revolution in abstract terms. He is clearly groping for a way to connect his ideas with practical political work, but he is still trying to get his own ideas clear and settle accounts with both Hegel's idealism (which he rejects) and his concept of dialectics (which he wants to use in a new way). Thus, he vacillates between a conception of workers as wretched "stupid" victims of capitalism and "noble" representatives of a future society.

The essay's final section is titled "Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole." This part of the Manuscripts is very challenging because Marx is engaging in a detailed criticism of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, using the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach's materialist criticism of religion and philosophy as his starting point. Marx himself warns us that Hegel is often "strange and bizarre," making his followers prone to "terrible headaches." (p. 344)

Even if you are unfamiliar with most of the references in this part of the essay, you can still find gems that help you gain a better insight into Marx's thinking. For instance, he writes that Hegel "has found the abstract, logical, speculative [philosophical] expression for the movement of history, which is not yet the real history of man." (p. 329)

This is a very nice explanation for why Marx likes Hegel so much. Even though Hegel remains stuck on seeing history as an "objectification" of the mind of God, he has hit upon this idea of the "movement of history." Moreover, it is a movement that is based on conflict and transformation, breaking and remaking. As Marx says, "the outstanding achievement of Hegel's philosophy...[is the] dialectic of negativity as the moving force and generating principle." (p. 332)

Better yet, Hegel sees that labor is the central force in human history, but he only recognizes a particular type of labor--namely, mental labor or abstract thought. Nonetheless, this insight allows Hegel to pioneer conceptions of alienation and estrangement that "even though it appears only as mind, there lie concealed in it all the elements of criticism, already prepared and elaborated in a manner often rising far above the Hegelian standpoint." (p. 332)

All of this makes it easy to see why the Manuscripts have remained both inspiring and contentious essays for several generations of revolutionaries. The Manuscripts break off, unfinished, yet Marx would soon take many of the ideas he began to work out here (alienation, communism, dialectics, etc.) and apply them to concrete political action and economic developments--specifically, what happens when workers go on strike? A perfect topic for my next column in honor of the 26,000 teachers who walked the picket lines in Chicago in September.

For the next article, read the Critical Notes on the Article "The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian--in particular the section from August 10, 1844. Also read Marx's letter to Ludwig Feuerbach, August 11, 1844.

Further Reading

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