Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by Karl Marx
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The EPM is an early work by Marx.
It is where he develops his version of alienation and the relationship of the self to others, but also the relationship to work and the means of production.
By the time of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had got involved in History and were not content just to describe it.
They became theorists and publicists for a revolutionary cause.
They created a theoretical justification for violence as a methodology for achieving a political goal.
Justifying the Use of Violence
Despite how democratic nations claim to be, many still use violence to achieve a goal or maintain the status quo.
Because they can't be seen to endorse revolution, they create and embrace the term "regime change".
They are both types of violence. The only difference is the justification.
They both use the same means, the difference is the end.
However, the EPM precedes all of this.
Reassessing Their Relevance
Marx and Engels have received a lot of bad publicity. Few dare to defend them.
But in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, it's worth opening their works and having a dispassionate squiz.
Not so that we can all get on a revolutionary anti-capitalism bandwagon again, but so that we can understand the plight of people in contemporary society.
July 20, 2012
In October, 1843, Karl and Jenny Marx left Cologne and arrived in Paris, where they lived and worked for two years.
Marx’ intention was to write for a radical magazine. At the time of their arrival, Marx was 25 and Jenny was pregnant with their first child, Jenny.
While in Paris, Marx wrote the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”, which were effectively the first draft of the ideas that would become the foundation of “Das Kapital” (“Capital”), the first volume of which he published in 1867.
The manuscripts are a critique of “political economy”, the term used then for what we now call “economics”.
They were never published during his lifetime and only became available in Russia in 1932, fifteen years after the Russian Revolution that brought the Communists to power.
Thus, a key work that explained the origin of his ideas remained unknown and of no influence for almost 90 years.
Communism as it manifested itself in the Soviet Union owed more to later works like “The Communist Manifesto” (1848) and “Capital”.
Just as importantly, the works weren’t translated into English until 1959, from which point they caused a radical reassessment of Marx’ ideas.
The Wealth of Nations
The manuscripts total about 120 pages.
The first 40 to 50 pages largely describe the operation of the economy.
If you were to read these pages for the first time today, you would think they encapsulated the principal communist analysis of the capitalist economy.
They describe private property; the separation of labour, capital and land; the separation of wages, profit of capital and rent of land; the division of labour, competition and the concept of exchange value.
Yet, ironically, most of this analysis is quoted from Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations”, a work sympathetic to capitalism published in 1776.
Marx highlights that:
• The worker does not necessarily gain when the capitalist gains, but he necessarily loses with him.
• Where worker and capitalist both suffer, the worker suffers in his very existence, while the capitalist suffers primarily in the profit on his capital.
• The worker must not only struggle for his physical means of subsistence, he must also struggle for work (in order to obtain the possibility and means of realizing his activity).
• The accumulation of capital increases the division of labour.
• As a consequence of the division of labour and the accumulation of capital, the worker becomes more and more dependent on labour, in particular a very one-dimensional and machine-like labour, which depresses him both intellectually and physically to the level of a machine.
• Even when the economy is growing, the consequence for workers is overwork and early death.
• The more mechanical nature of his work makes him more vulnerable to competition from both other workers and machines.
• Wages are designed to be just enough to enable him to continue to work.
• Even if the average income of all classes has increased, the relative incomes have grown further apart and the differences between wealth and poverty have become sharper.
• Relative poverty has grown, even though absolute poverty has diminished.
• Political economy knows the worker only as a beast of burden, as an animal reduced to the minimum bodily needs.
• It is foolish to conclude, as Smith does, that the interest of the landlord or capitalist is always identical with that of the tenant or society.
So far then, “from political economy itself, using its own words,” Marx shows that:
• The worker sinks to the level of a commodity.
• The misery of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and volume of his production.
• The necessary consequence of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands and hence the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form.
• The distinction between capitalist and landlord, between agricultural worker and industrial worker, disappears and the whole of society must split into the two classes of property owners and propertyless workers.
Marx concludes that “Political economy proceeds from the fact of private property. It does not explain it...Political economy fails to explain the reason for the division between labour and capital, between capital and land.”
Marx therefore sets out to grasp “the essential connection between private property, greed, the separation of labour, capital and landed property, exchange and competition, value and the devaluation of man, monopoly and competition, etc. – the connection between this entire system of estrangement [alienation] and the money system.”
Putting the Political Back Into “Political Economy”
I have quoted so much of Marx, partly to show how much he relied on Smith and Ricardo for his underlying analysis of the economy, partly to illustrate how little things have changed, partly to identify the moment at which Marx became political, and partly so that we can consider the political and economic options that might have been available to him to address the problems he perceived.
It was common ground that the economy was effectively a joint venture between labour, capital and landed property.
The problem was how to regulate and manage the relationship between them.
If they are all prerequisites of economic activity, are they equally vital and therefore should they be given an equal or at least more equitable status?
Is any one ingredient more or less fundamental than the others?
The Relative Significance of Capital
Smith would have said that capital was the foundation of capitalism and the one true determinant of the relationship.
Capital is money, and money has a purchasing power that can buy labour, just as it can buy property.
Capital therefore doesn’t acknowledge a joint venture relationship.
It buys what it needs to make more money and effectively replicate itself.
Capital, in its own eyes, is in control.
Over the course of 1844, this viewpoint became a red rag to Marx' bull.
One option would have been to remunerate workers more adequately.
Another would have been to grant them a share of the joint venture profit.
These options might have remedied some of the inequities.
However, they weren’t adequate from Marx’ perspective.
His preferred option was to abolish private property, in effect, to abolish private capital.
Why did he suggest this?
Entitlement to the Surplus Value
Again, there was common ground that the joint venture could create a profit or surplus value.
However, because capital has bought the labour and the property, capitalism gives the profit not to the joint venture, but to the capital that funds it.
Following on from Smith's description of the economy, Marx argues that ultimately it is labour that creates surplus value.
There would be no profit or capital without the labour that originally created the product or commodity.
If the worker whose labour created the original product had received the whole of the profit, the capitalist would have obtained no capital.
In the absence of capital, the capitalist would have had no money with which to purchase labour or property.
Instead, labour contributes to the capitalist’s wealth, which then, like a snake, turns around and consumes itself, starting with the tail or labour.
Marx believed that, only by chopping the snake in half and giving labour the benefit of surplus value, could real equity be achieved.
Since labour is the foundation of all surplus value, it should own the surplus value.
To achieve this, Marx believed we had to abolish private property.
A Chinese Diversion
Incidentally, in the Communist China of today, the replacement of private capital is not the worker, but public capital in the form of the State (the representative of the workers and other people).
By employing or exploiting Chinese workers, the Chinese State now makes so much surplus value, that, like a snake, it can turn around and start consuming or buying the capitalist economies of the world.
These economies are totally dependent on China for their continued existence.
What’s So Wrong with Private Property?
By rejecting the other available options, Marx rejected any suggestion that the inequity was purely about remuneration. (Even if the poor subsequently got richer under capitalism, the rich would get disproportionately richer, therefore “relative poverty” would increase.)
It’s precisely at this point that Marx becomes most philosophical in his approach to political economy.
He had to solve the problem of political economy in a way that satisfied the political philosophy that had begun to emerge in his mind.
The issue was so fundamental to Marx, because in his eyes it was the cause of the estrangement or alienation of mankind.
For me, what follows is the essence of Marx, even if most Marxists or Communists before 1932 (or 1959) would have been relatively unaware of its significance (except to the extent that some of these ideas emerged, possibly slightly changed in detail or emphasis, in the later works of Marx like “Capital”).
In contrast to Hegel, Marx did not see the correct subject matter of philosophy as contemplation or idealism, but practice or “human sensuous activity”.
Man doesn’t just think, he acts, he does things, he interacts with objects in the material world, he makes things, he produces things. (For this reason, Hannah Arendt calls man “homo faber”.)
These objects and the products of his interaction have a material existence outside the mind.
During the process of labour, a worker creates a product or commodity that “stands opposed to [him] as something alien, as a power independent of the [worker or] producer”:
"The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of the labour. The realization of labour is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy this realization of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation [by capital and the capitalist]as estrangement, as alienation."
In return for his labour, the worker receives work and remuneration, the means of subsistence.
This turns him into a slave. “The activity of the worker is not his own spontaneous activity. It belongs to another, it is a loss of self”:
"The result is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions – eating, drinking and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment – while in his human functions he is nothing more than an animal."
Man becomes alienated, not just from his labour and the product of his labour, but from the human race (his species) as a whole and from other individual humans.
And private property is at the root of this alienation: it is “the product, result and necessary consequence of alienated labour, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself”:
"Private property thus derives from an analysis of the concept of alienated labour, i.e., alienated man, estranged labour, estranged life, estranged man."
Private property is both the product of alienation and the means of realizing alienation.
Marx describes as "crude communism" the initial abolition of private property in favour of "universal private property".
At this stage, crude communism (now usually called "socialism") still preserves some form of alienation and is a political state, whether "democratic or despotic".
Stage 2 is true Communism, which he describes as follows:
"Communism is the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for man; it is the complete restoration of man to himself as a social, i.e., human, being...
"This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature, and between man and man, the true resolution of the conflict between existence and being, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species.
"It is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be the solution."
It’s significant that, while Marx was in Paris, he first met Engels (who had just published "The Condition of the Working Class in England") and this was his first statement that he now supported Communism.
But what does it mean? How can this happen?
This is where it starts to become frustrating and unclear. Some of the manuscripts have never been found.
We have outcomes, but not the methodology.
The new relationship of man to man, and individual to society is crucial, but difficult to piece together and understand.
For Marx, "activity and consumption, both in their content and in their mode of existence, are social activity and social consumption."
He doesn’t mean that we solely act, produce and consume communally (as opposed to individually).
He means that what man creates for himself, he creates for society, conscious of himself as a social being.
The individual and society are two sides of the one coin:
"[My] universal consciousness is only a theoretical form of that whose living form is the real community, society...the activity of my universal consciousness – as activity – is my theoretical existence as a social being...
"It is above all necessary to avoid once more establishing ‘society’ as an abstraction over against the individual. The individual is the social being.
"His vital expression – even when it does not appear in the direct form of a communal expression, conceived in association with other men – is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life. Man’s individual and species-life are not two distinct things..."
In a way, a fully realised man is good for society, and society is good for the fully realised man, but they are one and the same thing:
"Man, however much he may therefore be a particular individual – and it is just this particularity which makes him an individual and a real individual communal being – is just as much the totality, the ideal totality, the subjective existence of thought and experienced society for itself; he also exists in reality as the contemplation and true enjoyment of social existence and as a totality of vital human expression."
Only when this happens, whatever it is, whatever it takes, can man "humanize" nature and the objects around him.
Only then do all objects become for man the objectification of himself, objects that confirm and realise his individuality:
"Only through the objectively unfolded wealth of human nature can the wealth of subjective human sensitivity - a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form, in short senses capable of human gratification – be either cultivated or created. For not only the five senses, but also the so-called spiritual senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, the human senses, the humanity of the senses – all these come into being only through the existence of their objects, through humanized nature."
Marx sees history as the inevitable progress of man towards the realization of his true, complete and unalienated humanity:
"It can now be seen how the history of industry and the objective existence of industry as it has developed is the open book of the essential powers of man, man’s psychology present in tangible form."
Instead of the objectified powers of the human essence manifesting themselves in sensuous, useful objects to which we relate, capitalism confronts us with the alien nature of our objects and we are alienated.
In contrast, communism represents "a fresh confirmation of human powers and a fresh enrichment of human nature."
My Own Private Property
There is some question as to whether private property will cease altogether under Communism.
However, Marx suggests that “the meaning of private property, freed from its estrangement, is the existence of essential objects for man, both as objects of enjoyment and of activity.”
It’s possible that money might also continue to exist, as a vehicle to acquire objects of enjoyment and activity.
However, his analysis of money is very derogatory, and this interpretation might be wrong.
The Road Ahead
I hesitate to call Marx an idealist or a romantic, because he was determined to integrate theory and practice, and extend philosophy into the politics of action.
After all, just a few years later, he wrote, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."
However, it seems to me that he had a clear definition of the nature and potential of humanity, and he shaped his political philosophy to achieve that potential.
He saw private property in the form of capital as the chief obstacle to the achievement of this potential.
He considered that it had to be abolished, and that the only means was a revolution of the working class.
He opposed other options that might have ameliorated the misery of the working class, in the hope that the severity of their condition would lead inevitably to revolution.
Many people joined the revolutionary cause, because for whatever reason they wanted to negate the negative that they felt capitalism embodied.
Few have ever been able to define the positive that they were trying to achieve.
Few who actually participated in the Russian Revolution even knew the true positive nature of what Marx hoped to achieve.
It is very easy to get caught in the enthusiasm of the 25 year old Marx, even easier to believe that many of the problems still exist, particularly in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.
However, the physical description of the diagnosis is something as old as Adam Smith.
Marx might well have been right in identifying the causes.
However, it’s the treatment that needs to be worked on.
We need to do something that doesn’t end up killing the patient.
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