Colin Humphries


Two Marx’s or One?

(Autumn 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.49, Autumn 1971, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marx’s Grundrisse
David McLennan
Macmillan, £2.50

For Marx
Louis Althusser
Allen Lane: the Penguin Press, £2.75

Before writing the final version of Capital, Marx wrote more than a thousand pages of rough drafts (usually known as the Grundrisse). These were unknown until discovered and published (in German) in the 1930s, and only recently have fragments begun to appear in English.

In these writings Marx deals with topics he hardly mentions elsewhere. So scholars interested in Marx’s views on Oriental societies, on the rise of capitalism or on the philosophical underpinning of his work have been fascinated by them. However, their real importance does not lie in such new insights, but in the light they cast on disputes as to how Marx’s other writings should be understood.

In recent years it has become fashionable in certain academic circles which claim inspiration from Marx to make a distinction between the young Marx who wrote in Paris in the 1840s and the old Marx who wrote Capital. Writers like, say, Erich Fromm hold that the young Marx was correct as against the old Marx. Other writers, like the French Stalinist Althusser hold the reverse. Both are agreed however that it is possible to distinguish between two completely different approaches (or ‘problematics’ in Althusser’s pretentious terminology) to the understanding of social development.

According to Althusser, the ‘mature’ Marx saw society as a set of structures, developing according to objective laws, with men as mere cogs within them, mere products of their circumstances, unable to play any conscious role in social transformations. So Althusser derides as residues of an outmoded approach the use of terms like alienation and reification which imply that men can dominate the products of their labours. Similarly, he opposes the idea of ‘Marxist humanism’ because it argues that men can be more than cogs in machines. A further consequence of his standpoint is that the superiority of Marxism over bourgeois social science is not a result of its relationship to revolutionary proletarian practice, but because of a superior methodology of science that Marx developed, which could (logically) be adopted by non-revolutionaries. Indeed, the relationship between Marxism and the revolutionary movement is argued to inevitably lead away from ‘science’ to ideology.

It is not difficult to link Althusser’s ideas to his own social position. He is simultaneously a supporter of the Franch CP and the various State Capitalist regimes, and a French academic. His views on the independence of theory from practice (his solution of the hoary old problem of the relation of theory to practice is to rebaptise theory as ‘theoretical practice’) must be very congenial to all academics. At the same time his view that under socialism as under capitalism men will be just as much dominated by social mechanisms over which they have no control makes it very easy to define the oppressive and exploitative regimes of Brezhnev or Mao as ‘socialist’. After all exploitation takes place under a different structural arrangement (one is reminded of the old East European joke: ‘Under capitalism there is the exploitation of man by man. Under socialism it is the other way round’).

The publication by Dr McLennan of extracts from the Grundrisse is to be welcomed because they show quite clearly that all the talk about ‘two Marx’s’ is nonsense. Although written only about five years before Marx started out on the final draft of Capital, they are clearly in continuity with his writings of the 1840s. Of course, Marx had developed enormously in the meantime. He had introduced a whole range of fresh concepts. Yet at the same time whole passages are more or less copied out from the Paris writings. The same terminology is often employed – as it is indeed, although more sparsely, in Capital itself.

For Marxists who have always understood the continuity between the simple examination of alienation in 1844 and the vastly extended and elaborated account of alienated labour in Capital, Marx’s Grundrisse will not add much to what they know already. However, for those who have been misled by the Stalinist academicism of Althusser it will present a real problem. Either they will have to admit that the Althusserian position has nothing in common with the Marxism of Marx, or they will have to abandon their past positions and come to terms with revolutionary theory and practice.

Last updated on 16 November 2009