The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

6. The Critique of Politics

IN the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher, as we have seen, Marx does not yet treat his social dialectic as consisting simply of the struggle of economic classes or as arising from economic ‘contradictions’. His detailed investigation of civil society, of the world trade and industry, is only about to begin. For the moment, his analysis of civil society is still fairly perfunctory, particularly in relation to his far more detailed critique of the political State. But he does, in his article on the Jewish question, take the all-important step of connecting the evils of modern civil society specifically with the power of money, thus both laying the foundation for his coming critique of economics and bringing out clearly once more the ethical categories with which he works. Civil society, he insists, is ‘the world of riches’, and money is that power which turns man into a servile, dependent being, determined from without. It makes man into a commodity. Precisely in that, for Marx, lies its absolute moral evil.

Money lowers all the gods of mankind and transforms them into a commodity. Money is the universal, self-constituting value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world, both the human world and Nature, of its own peculiar value. Money is the essence of man’s work and existence, alienated from man, and this alien essence dominates him, and he prays to it.[52]
(‘On the Jewish Question’, M I, 1-i, 603.)

Marx is able to bring these points into a review of Bruno Bauer’s pamphlets on Jewish emancipation because he treats Judaism as the religion of money,[53] as the practical expression of the egoism of the world of riches. Christianity he regards as the witting or unwitting partner of Judaism, as the religion which puts all of man’s moral and social relationships into heaven, makes them external to his social being, and thus enables civil society to achieve its current arrogant independence:

Judaism reaches its highest point with the perfection of civil society; but civil society consummates itself only in the Christian world. Only under the sway of Christianity, which makes all national, natural, moral and intellectual relationships external to man, could civil society separate itself entirely from the life of the State, rend all social bonds [Gattungsbande] of men, put egoism, self-interested wants, in place of social bonds and break up the human world into a world of atomistic mutually hostile individuals.

Christianity arose out of Judaism. Once again it has flown back into Judaism.

Christ was patently the theorising Jew; the Jew therefore is the practical Christian and the practical Christian is become Jew again.

Christianity overcame actual living Judaism only in appearance. It was too respectable, too spiritualistic, to overcome the brutality of practical needs except by raising itself into the sky.

Christianity is the sublime thought of Judaism and Judaism is the mean practical application of Christianity, but this practical application can become universal only after Christianity as the consummated religion has completed in theory man’s self-alienation from himself and from Nature.

Only then could Judaism gain universal dominion and turn externalised and estranged [entäussert] man and externalised and estranged Nature into objects fallen into servitude to egoistic needs, into objects of barter.

Making things saleable is the practical side of alienation. just as man, so long as he is still caught within the limitations of religion, can only objectify his essential being by making it into an alien, phantastic being, so under the domination of egoistic wants he can only act practically, he can only create objects in practice, by putting his products as well as his activity under the domination of an alien being and giving them the significance of an alien being — the significance of money...

As soon as society succeeds in destroying the empirical essence of Judaism, buying and selling and its presuppositions, the Jew will become impossible, because his consciousness will no longer have an object, because the subjective basis of Judaism, practical wants personified, and the conflict of the individual-sensual existence with the existence of man as a member of the species will have disappeared.

The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.
(‘On the Jewish Question’, M I, 1-i, 604-6.)

Such, then, for Marx is modern civil society — egoistic, atomic, particular, logically precluded by its form from true universality and leading inevitably to servility, self-alienation, dependence and increasing internal tensions and misery. It is the animal world from which there can be no further development but to negate its basis and pass over to the ‘human world of democracy’ (‘Corr. of 1843’, M I, 1-i, 564).

The modern political State — Marx means by this the constitutional democracies established by the French and North American revolutions — suffers from a similar incoherence. According to Marx, it does embody the demands of reason, it points to the future, but only with the inevitable limitations imposed by its form and by its separation from civil society.

Reason has always existed, but not always in a rational form. The critic can therefore seize upon any form of the theoretical and practical consciousness and develop out of the special forms of existing reality the true reality of that which ought to be, of that which is reality’s final aim. So far as actual life is concerned, it is just the political State, even where it is not consciously permeated by socialist demands, that contains in all its modern forms the demands of reason. And it does not rest there. Everywhere it supports reason coming to be reality. Equally, however, it falls everywhere into the contradiction of its ideal characters with its presuppositions.
(‘Corr. of 1843’, M I, 1-i, 574.)

For Marx at this stage the political State is not yet merely an instrument of class control, nor is it a mere reflection of the state of civil society. On the contrary, like religion, it is not a reflection of civil society but a compensation for it, an ideal completion of it. just as Marx regards Christianity as expressing not only real misery, but also the protest against real misery, a ghostly rationality in another world (second Hegel critique, M I, 1-i, 607), so he treats the political State as an ideal assertion of the universal human essence, of that striving toward universality, self-determination and natural co-operation which has been entirely banished from modern civil society.

Just as religion is the table of contents of the theoretical struggles of man, so the political State is that of his practical struggles. The political State within its form therefore expresses sub specie rei publicae all social struggles, needs, truths.
(‘Corr. of 1843’, M I, 1-i, 574.)

The political State, however, is fatally limited by its form, by its separation from civil society and from the actual, empirical being of man with that society. It remains an ideal expression of his universal being, powerless to conquer the actualities of man’s existence. It is hence one-sided, logically incomplete and incoherent in precisely those principles which it professes to apply to human society. The proof of this, says Marx, can be seen in the French and American revolutions. Professedly, they achieved the political emancipation of mankind. They proclaimed man’s freedom, independence from religion and his rationality — as apolitical citizen. But as a man, they left him in bondage, thus contradicting their own basis, bringing out their one-sidedness and incoherence:

The boundary of political emancipation reveals itself immediately in the fact that the State can free itself of a certain limitation[52] without men becoming truly free of this limitation, in the fact that the State can be a free State without man being a free man.
(‘On the Jewish Question’, M I, 1-i, 582.)

Thus, Marx argues, men proclaim themselves atheists politically by declaring the State to be secular yet guarantee themselves the ‘right’ of worship and so remain in religious bondage. Man decomposes himself into the man, follower of a specific religion, and the citizen, member of the atheistic State. The resultant tension expresses the real, this-worldly tension between civil society and the political State, between the bourgeois and the citoyen, between the private interest and the common interest (M I, 1-i, 583-91). Nor is this product accidental. It arises from the very character of political emancipation, which robs religion of even that limited connexion with man’s universal being which it had in the feudal State and transforms it into an expression of the very spirit of civil society. The same considerations apply to private property:

The political annulment of private property [through the removal of property qualifications for voters and candidates] does not destroy private property but presupposes it. The State destroys distinctions of birth, estate, education and occupation in its own way, when it takes distinctions of birth, estate) education and occupation to be unpolitical distinctions, when it makes every member of the people an equal participant in the sovereignty of the people without reference to these distinctions, when it treats all elements of actual civil life from the point of view of the State. For all that, the State nowise prevents private property, education and occupation from acting and making their specific being felt in their own way, i.e., as private property, as education, as occupation. Far from resolving these distinctions of fact, the political State exists only by presupposing them, it sees itself as a political State and imposes its universality only in opposition to these, its elements.
(Op. cit., M I, 1-i, 583-4.)

This contradiction, says Marx, runs through the whole doctrine of human rights, fundamental to the political State in its modern form. It breaks out clearly in the distinction made between political rights, the droits du citoyen, and the rights of man or natural rights, the droits de l'homme:

Who is the homme, as distinguished from the citoyen? No one but the member of civil society. Why is this member called ‘man’, simply man; why are his rights called the rights of man? How shall we explain this fact? By the relationship of the political State to civil society, by the essential character of political emancipation.

Above all, we assert the fact that the so-called rights of man, the droits de l'homme, as opposed to the droits du citoyen, are nothing but rights of the member of civil society, i.e., of egoistic man, of man separated from man and from the common life and being.
(OP. cit., M I, 1-i, 593.)

We can see this clearly, says Marx, if we examine the rights of man and of the citizen as laid down in the most radical constitution, the French Constitution of 1793, which names the rights of freedom, property, equality and security.

Freedom [if we examine the definition given in the Constitution] is therefore the tight to do everything which harms no one else. The borders within which every man can move harmlessly are determined by the law, just as the border between two fields is determined by a fence. The concern is with the freedom of man as an isolated monad withdrawing into itself ... The human right of freedom is not based on the connexion of man with man but rather on the separation of man from man. It is this right of separation, the right of the limited individual, limited unto himself...

Man’s right of private property is the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose over it arbitrarily [a son gré], without considering other men, independently of society. It is the right of self-interest. Such individual freedom, like this application of it, forms the basis of civil society. It allows every man to find in other men not the realisation, but the limitation, of his freedom ...

Egalité, in its non-political sense, is nothing but the equality of the liberty described above i.e., that each man is regarded equally as such a monad, based on itself ...

Security is the highest social conception of civil society, the conception held by the police force that all of society exists only in order to guarantee to each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights and his property

Civil society does not through the concept of security raise itself above its egoism. Security is rather the guarantee of egoism.

None of these so-called rights of man goes beyond the egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society, as a man severed from the common social life and withdrawn into his private interests and private caprice. Far from man being conceived in these rights as a generic being [Gattungswesen], the life of the genus itself [Gattungsleben], society, appears in them as a frame external to individuals, as a limitation of their original independence. The sole thread that keeps them together is natural necessity, needs and private interest, the preservation of their property and of their egoistic person.

(OP. cit., M I, 1-i, 593-5. I have omitted in this and in many subsequent quotations those of Marx’s over-frequent italicisations which seem to me merely pointless.)

This, then, is the result of a political emancipation confined to the realm of politics, an emancipation based on the separation of political State and civil society:

A people which is just beginning to free itself, to tear down all the barriers between various members of the people and to found a common political fellowship [politisches Gemeinwesen] ... solemnly proclaims the vindication of the egoistic man, severed from his fellow-man and from the common fellowship ...

The political emancipators lower the citizen and the common political fellowship to the level of a mere means for preserving these so-called human rights, so that the citoyen is made the servant of the egoistic homme. The sphere in which man conducts himself as a universal, social being is degraded, put below the sphere in which he conducts himself as a sectional being and, finally, man as a bourgeois and not man as a citoyen, is taken for the essential and true man.
(Op. cit., M I, 1-i, 595.)

Thus egoistic man, the member of civil society, now stands revealed as ‘the basis, the pre-supposition of the political State, which recognises him as such in the rights of man’ (op. cit., p. 598). The political man, on the other hand, remains only ‘the abstracted, artificial man, man as an allegorical person’ (ibid.). Because the political State is such an allegory, such an ideal construct, based on the factual presupposition of egoistic man in civil society, it is in fact powerless before civil society. This is why, according to Marx, the Jews who are denied the right to vote in the smallest European hamlet control the bourses of the great European capitals.

The contradiction between the practical political power of the Jew and his political rights is the general contradiction between politics and the power of money. In thought, the former stands above the latter, in fact it has become the latter’s slave.
(Op. cit., M I, 1-i, 602.)

We have seen, then, the formal, logical, necessary limitations of political emancipation and the political State. Both deny civil society, yet rest upon it. The historical reason for this ‘contradiction’ Marx suggests in his second Hegel critique, where he approaches his later class doctrine most closely:

Upon what does a partial, merely political revolution rest? Upon this, that a part of civil society emancipates itself and attains universal dominion, upon the fact that a particular class, working from a situation particular to itself, undertakes the universal emancipation of society. This class does free the whole society, but only under the proviso that the whole society find itself in the situation of this class, i.e., for instance, that it possess money and education or that it can at least attain these.
(M I, 1-i, 617.)

There are, indeed, moments of political enthusiasm when the demands of reason, embodied in limited form within the political State, seek to fulfil themselves. They press, within the form of the political State for the dissolution and supercession of such cardinal symptoms of man’s bondage as religion and private property. But within the form of the political State this proves impossible:

In the moments of its specific feeling for itself, political life seeks to suppress its presuppositions — civil society and its elements — and to constitute itself as the true, contradictionless generic or social life of man. It can do this only through the forcible negation of its own conditions of existence, through declaring the revolution to be permanent; the political drama therefore necessarily ends with the re-establishment of religion, of private property and of all the elements of civil society, just as war ends with peace.
(‘On the Jewish Question’, M I, 1-i, 586-7.)

A few months later, in his article ‘Critical Glosses on the Article: “The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian"’,[53] Marx again insists on the necessary impotence of the political State:

The State cannot overcome the contradiction between the good intentions of the administration on the one hand and its means and possibility of action on the other without overcoming and destroying itself, for the State rests on the contradiction. It rests on the contradiction between public and private life, between universal interests and special interests. The administration therefore has to confine itself to formal and negative action, for where civil life and its work begin there the power of the administration ends. Impotence vis-á-vis the consequences which spring from the unsocial nature of civil life, from private ownership, trade, industry and the mutual plundering engaged in by the various bourgeois circles is the natural law governing the administration. This fragmentation, this oppression, this slavery to civil society, is the natural foundation on which the modern State rests, just as the civil society of slavery was the natural foundation on which the ancient State rested ... If the State wanted to overcome and destroy the impotence of its administration, it would have to overcome and destroy the private life of to-day.
(M I, 3, 14-5.)

Thus, according to Marx, we can see the necessary incompleteness, the merely illusory character, of political emancipation. But he still believes with that Young Hegelian optimism that sees the rational society about to burst upon the world that the chain of events begun by political emancipation cannot be halted. Its own logic drives it relentlessly forward at tremendous pace. Because each class that presses for political emancipation liberates society only from its own point of view, the role of emancipator in spirited countries like France, if not in Germany, passes in dramatic sequence from one class to another.

Finally it reaches the class which no longer realises social freedom under the presupposition of particular conditions that lie outside man but were yet created by human society. This class on the contrary organises all the conditions of human life under the presupposition of social freedom.
(Second Hegel critique, M I, 1-i, 61g.)

In France, Marx believes, such a class might be activated by enthusiasm. In Germany the French revolution took place only in ideas, in the philosophy of Kant, and not in reality; the middle classes remained powerless; here such a revolutionary class will be activated only by needs. But there is such a class —

a class in civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which represents the dissolution of all estates, a sphere endowed with universal character because of its universal suffering and claiming no particular rights because the wrong it is made to suffer is not a particular wrong but simply wrong as such ... a class which represents the utter loss of humanity and which can therefore regain itself only by fully regaining the human. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat ... When the proletariat announces the dissolution of the social order that has existed hitherto, it thereby only expresses the secret of its own existence, for it is the effective dissolution of this order. If the proletariat demands the negation of private property, it is only making into a principle of society that which society has made into a principle of the proletariat.
(Op. cit., 619-20.)

If Marx turned to the proletariat from practical considerations, through realising the impotence of the German middle classes, he has here given it the ‘speculative development’ which he claims Epicurus gave to the atom. He sees in it not just the empirical existence, but the logical category. The proletariat occupies a necessary place in the dialectical schema; it is driven by ‘the secret of its own existence’ to accomplish the dissolution and raising up into a new form of the old order. And just as contradictions in the atom could not be resolved without treating it as free, so the contradictions of the proletarian’s position cannot be resolved without restoring to mankind its freedom, its ‘universal soul’.

The fellowship [Gemeinwesen] from which the worker is isolated is a fellowship of a scope and order of reality quite different from that of the political fellowship. The fellowship from which his own labour separates the worker is life itself, physical and intellectual life, morality and customs, human activity, human satisfaction, being human. Being human [Das menschliche Wesen] is the true fellowship of men. just as irremediable isolation from this fellowship is incomparably more pervasive, unbearable, horrible and full of contradiction than isolation from the political fellowship, so the dissolution of this isolation from being human, or even a partial reaction or uprising against it, is as much wider in scope as man is wider in scope than the political citizen, as human life is wider in scope than political life. Thus, no matter how sectional an industrial uprising, it carries within it a universal soul; a political uprising, no matter how universal, hides in the hugest form a narrow soul ...

A social revolution therefore takes place from the standpoint of the whole, even if it takes place only in one factory district, because it is the protest of man against the dehumanised life, because it starts off from the standpoint of the single, real individual, because the fellowship against whose separation from himself the individual is reacting is the true fellowship of man, the fellowship of being human. The political soul of a revolution, on the other hand, consists in the tendency of a politically uninfluential class to break asunder its isolation from the State and the ruling power. Its standpoint is that of the State, an abstracted whole which arises only through separation from empirical life, which is unthinkable without the organised contradiction between the universal idea and the individual existence of man. A revolution permeated with the political soul therefore organises, in accordance with its limited and dualistic nature, a ruling circle in society at the cost of society ...

Revolution in general — the overthrowing of the existing power and the destruction of old relationships — is a political act. But without revolution socialism cannot be carried out. Socialism needs this political act in so far as it needs destruction and dissolution. But as soon as its organising activity begins, as soon as its essential purpose, its soul, steps forward, socialism tosses away the political shell.
(‘Critical Glosses’, M I, 3, 21-3.)