Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What If? An Alternative History For Karl Marx

Some Works By Marx Not Available Until The 20th Century

1.0 Introduction

Surprisingly, current understanding, among scholars, of the thought of Karl Marx is dependent on major primary texts that were unavailable until well after Marx died in 1883. I have in mind, especially, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology, and The Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie. These were originally written in 1844, 1845, and from 1857 to 1858, respectively. But they were left to "the gnawing criticism of the mice" during Marx and Engels' lifetime. They only became available after the 1930s, with subsequent translations to English and other languages.

For this post, I want to focus on the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundrisse. My claim is that their interpretation reflected 20th century contexts. I wonder what would have been the effect if the Grundrisse had become more widely known before the 1844 Manuscripts. Perhaps then scholars would have been more inclined to read Marx's thought as a continuous development, without hypothesizing a break between the "Young Marx" and a later emphasis on a later analysis emphasizing objectivity. I am intrigued by possible connections between Marx's early ideas on alienation, later ideas on commodity fetishism and vulgar political economy, and Lukas' discussion of reification. (These are all topics where I have no issue acknowledging that my understanding is partial.)

2.0 The 1944 Manuscripts

For me, I was surprised to see that a large part of these manuscripts were taken up by annotated comments on such writers on classical political economy as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. As pointed out by Mandel, Marx rejected the labor theory of value in these manuscripts. Nevertheless, he had lots to say about the labor process, and in particular the estrangement or alienation of labor under capitalism.

I think some of these remarks draw on Aristotle, as well as Hegel. Recall that Marx was a classical scholar. His doctoral thesis was on the Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. Marx, like Aristotle, was concerned with how human beings could be at their best, how they could achieve self-actualization, or how they could live in a way consistent with their "species being". But Marx stood Aristotle's attitude to labor on its head. (I think I read this point in something by Hannah Arendt.)

For Marx, humans fully achieve their potential in creation, that is, in production. But, under capitalism, the laborer produces under the capitalist's direction, and his output is alienated from him. He does not own what he produces. His product is sold on a market. The means of production and the objects produced by the workers confront the worker as an active outside force, not something in which he can take pride. Capitalism warps the worker.

2.1 For the Young Marx

Suppose you were writing in the late 1950s or the 1960s. And you found socialism attractive. Then you might want to consider Marx's ideas. In this period, you would have witnessed, among other events, Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing the Stalinist cult of personality, the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, and the 1968 suppression of the Prague Spring. Many a socialist in the west would want to reject the Soviet Union and their official philosophy. One could still champion the humanism of the young Marx and leave the Soviet ideologues to a teleology taken from the later Marx. Thus, one would be inclined to read an epistemic break into Marx.

2.2 Against the Young Marx

On the other hand, suppose you were an intellectual associated with an orthodox communist party in a western country, namely France. Arguing for an epistemic break in the development of Marx's thought is still an attractive reading. And so I come to Louis Althusser's structuralist reading of Marx. He agrees the young Marx is a humanist, but finds attractive the mature Marx. And so he champions an anti-humanism. As I understand, this reading emphasizes historical and dialectical materialism. It opposes subjectivism, voluntarism, and a naive empiricism. I do not understand much about Althusser. But I can see the point of view that there is no true human nature to be freed by a better society after the revolution. Rather, human beings are always an element embedded in a larger social structure. One will be constrained in the formation of ones beliefs and in ones actions by some such larger structures. These structures can be altered, maybe drastically, but it is pointless to try to imagine humans without society. For Althusser, Marx founded a science of history, just like Euclid founded a science of geometry and Galileo founded a science of a new physics. Maybe I'll reread Althusser, and try to understand the problematic he claims Marx was addressing in his later work. (He is one author I can see the point of an ad hominem against based on his personal life.)

3.0 The Grundrisse

The Grundrisse throws a spanner into this idea of a break in Marx's thought. It is a working out of ideas, some which were later given expression in Capital. Yet it contains much emphasis on human subjectivity and Hegelian themes of the early Marx. I like Marx's exposition of his method in the introduction. He explains that in discovering a set of concepts to explain a society in history, one will make many abstractions. In presenting these concepts, one will start from these abstractions and present one's theory in an order fairly close to the opposite of the order of discovery. Empirical phenomena will be overdetermined and refract an organic mixture of many abstractions. In the Grundrisse one can also see Marx develop his ideas on historical materialism without worry about Prussian censorship. (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy did go through such censorship.) Also, in the introduction, Marx has a polemic against basing economics on myths of Robinson Crusoe.

Antonio Negri produced one study of the Grundrisse that I have stumbled through. (I do not think much of the translation.) Negri is part of an Italian political movement to the left of what was the Italian Communist Party (PCI). During the 1970s, leading lights of western communist parties, such as Enrico Berlinguer, insisted on the autonomy of individual communist parties and their ability to take a line independent of any direction from Moscow. This movement became known as Eurocommunism. Once also saw the Italian Communist Party making a "historic compromise" with more centrist parties, in a maneuver to get into, at least, regional governments.

Negri and the autonomia movement (a kind of anarchism) remained more radical. Negri sees in the Grundrisse a theory of the independent agency of the working class. Unlike in his reading of Capital, labor need not merely react to the initiatives of the capitalists. For Negri, the Grundrisse is more open, with less deterministic accounts of how the contradictions of capitalism will be resolved in specific historical circumstances.

4.0 Conclusion

Confining myself to works translated into English, I have outlined how the reception of certain works by Marx, first made available in the twentieth century, may have been impacted by the order in which they were considered and the political context of certain scholars. So I wonder what would have happened if they became available in another order. Is scholarship on Marx now possible without being bent by one's opinion about no-longer-actually existing socialism? By current political controversies?

Secondary References
  • Louis Althusser (1969). For Marx (trans. by Ben Brewster).
  • Erich Fromm (1961). Marx's Concept of Man [To Read. Does this emphasize the humanism of the young Marx?]
  • Ernest Mandel (1971). The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, 1843 to Capital (Trans by Brian Pearce). Monthly Review Press [A study of the development of Marx's ideas by a follower of Trotsky]
  • Antonio Negri (1991). Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, New York: Autonomedia
  • Bertell Ollman (1976). Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Society, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press. [To Read]
  • Paul Walton and Stuart Hall (editors) (197x). Situating Marx: Evaluations and Departures. Human Context Books [Proceedings of a symposium in Britain on the Grundrisse]


Magpie said...

"So I wonder what would have happened if they became available in another order. Is scholarship on Marx now possible without being bent by one's opinion about no-longer-actually existing socialism? By current political controversies?"

Those are good questions, and I agree you make a good case for your thesis.

Unfortunately, I am not able to answer them.

I myself have long found this idea of the epistemological break nonsensical, albeit on different grounds.

Althusser appears to believe that one day Marx woke up and voila everything he yesterday believed in was changed today.

Things just don't work that way. People are not like Aphrodite in Boticelli's painting, emerging out of the seashell one day fully formed. People evolve, usually by stages.

One sees these changes in the history of arts. Among artists and writers is common to find they have periods: their output, while retaining some common characteristics, diverge on other aspects.

Much closer in time and subject: I myself have docummented Paul Krugman's changes of heart on the subject of inequality.

Why should Marx be the only intellectual whose views either came in one piece from his mother's womb, or appeared out of nowhere around 1850?

People reach tentative conclusions, observe new things (Althusser tended to be dismissive of empiricism), learn, change their minds, focus on other aspects of reality.

Personally, I tend to give more weight to Marx's later period, because in it his thought was, presumably, better formed. And, for good or for ill, it feels right to me.

This is not to say one can disregard his early production or the possibility he would have changed his mind later, had he lived longer.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the article and think that a Marxist reading of 20th century Marxism necessitates that it be the case. Historical materialism has to explain itself if it wants to be taken seriously. Nothing would destroy Marxist theory more than claiming that all ideologies are determined by historical and material conditions yet Marxism itself isn't.


I don't think that's a fair characterization of Althusser's position. He did believe there was a rupture in Marx's thought, but he maintained that Marx was not aware of it and traces of his idealism can be found in all his works. He also never claims this rupture happened outside context; the rupture arose out of previous works of political economy and Hegelian thought in the context of 18th century class struggle.

I'm not convinced by Althusser and have various problems with his thought, but I do think some aspects of late Marx are incompatible with his earlier thought.


Magpie said...


Maybe I was much too harsh in my previous comment.

To be completely honest, I always found it really difficult to understand Althusser. What little I could take from him was mostly through secondary sources (as the video lectures by the late Stephen Resnick, or through the writing of people like Chilean sociologist Marta Harnecker).

And I do understand and agree with you that for Althusser there were reasons explaining this alleged break.

But my point, beyond the valid points you made, is that one cannot understand an intellectual's output as neatly divided into discrete, unrelated categories: pre-break and post-break.

Actually, in my opinion, a view like mine, where people gradually learn and adapt their thought to their changing experiences, would be much better at explaining that "some aspects of late Marx are incompatible with his earlier thought", as you said.

Will said...

While Marx of course didn't use the term "reification", the idea that it captures was central to many of his critiques. It seems to me drawn from Feuerbach's critique of religion -- the idea that people substitute abstract ideas of God and divine rules for their own relations to each other as free agents. This makes up the heart of most of Marx's insights. And it is totally unappreciated by economists, who are constantly substituting demand schedules and marginal productivities and "laws" of demand, population, growth, whatever, when in fact the phenomena described represent the choices and relationships of humans.

Anonymous said...

I am a bit ambiguous about using works not published during Marx's lifetime.

Take, for example, quoting from the drafts of The Civil War in France. If Marx meant those bits to be quoted as reflective of his ideas, then why did he not include them in the final version? Surely that implies that he was not happy with his turn of phrase and so explicitly excluded them in the final version?

Also, quoting from unpublished works also fails to place how his ideas impacted on the socialist movement -- to quote from, say, The German Ideology to show what Marx "really meant" does not explain how Marxism as an ideology and a movement developed as these became available in the 1930s, long after Social Democracy and Bolshevism had both degenerated (in the ways anarchists had long predicted!).

Also, of course, people change their minds. As Capital came after the Grundise the question arises of how much of the latter was draft, replaced by the first volume of the former? How much of it is, in effect, the immature Marx>

Of course, in some cases looking at unpublished works is important. Bakunin springs to mind as many of his key works were written to comrades and not intended for wide publication. Letters are important as well (I can think of at least two Proudhon letters, to one Marx, which are important summaries and should be quoted).

So my basic point is that you need to be careful and judge how much to trust to unpublished works. So, for example, if your case rests on the drafts of The Civil War in France then I would consider it as weak. If it depends on parts of the Grundise covering areas on in Capital volume 1 then I think you would have a stronger case.

An Anarchist FAQ

Unlearningecon said...

Bertell Ollman makes a similar point to you (Robert) and others here in Alienation. He emphasises that Marx's philosophy of internal relations meant that he could use different terms for the same thing or the same term for different things, depending on which aspect of the abstraction on which he was focused.

These shifting definitions meant that people misinterpeted him as changing his position, when he was simply changing his definitions to highlight particular relations.

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the comments.

I think that unpublished work is worthwhile for academic studies of how a particular thinker came to develop his views. They seem of less worth, to me, for justifying any particular political stance of the current day.

I have been trying to reread some Althusser. I agree with SRM that Althusser does not explain Marx's mature views as being created all at once and from nowhere. In fact, he explains them partly by historical materialism, not just by Marx's engagement with the ideas of previous thinkers, whether German philosophers, French socialists, or British political economists. But I do not expect to absorb Althusser with this rereading either.