The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

7. The Critique of Economics

HIS critique of politics, as we have seen, led Marx to the conclusion that the universality of the political State was contradicted by the egoism of economic life. He is not content, however, to develop the inevitability of the rational society out of the ‘dialectical’ conflict between the political State and economic life alone. For though he does not yet treat politics as a mere reflection of productive relations, he does already ascribe to it a certain impotence. He sees the political State as dominated by civil society, by the naked, atomic economic man. It is for this reason, no doubt, that Marx now turns to an examination of civil society itself and seeks to find within economic life the dialectical motive force toward change which political life alone is too weak to provide. For the first time, Marx plunges into detailed economic studies. He makes copious excerpts from de Boisguillebert, Eugene Buret, Lord Lauderdale, John Law, Friedrich List, MacCulloch, James Mill, Osiander, Ricardo, Say, Schuz, Skarbek and Adam Smith. The Economico-Philosophical (Paris) Manuscripts of 1844 were the first results of this work. In them, Marx sought to show the dialectical break within economic life itself, the inescapable contradictions which made its continuance or free development within the same ‘form’ impossible. He sought to do so by submitting the entire structure of contemporary political economy, its categories and its fundamental laws, to the most searching philosophical criticism.

Philosophical criticism, for Marx, still meant logico-ethical criticism. It did not mean patently normative criticism. Marx expounds no moral $principles’ or standards according to which political economy is tried and found wanting. But logical ‘contradictions’, to Marx, are the inevitable result of evil; they are part of the very nature and way of working of the egoistic, the alienated, the unfree. Engels, who had acquired from the Young Hegelians roughly the same views, had already preceded Marx in the task of subjecting political economy to such criticism by publishing in the single issue of the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher of February, 1844 his ‘Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy’. Marx thought highly of the article and became interested in Engels, whom he knew only slightly, as a result. Yet a comparison of Engels’ article with Marx’s manuscripts brings out how much more thorough-going is Marx’s conception of the relation between logical and ethical criticism. For Engels, political economy is something he attacks both morally and logically; for Marx, these attacks are not complete until they have been brought back to a single base. Thus Engels begins with a moral-advocative onslaught: ‘Political economy, or the science of becoming rich, arisen out of the mutual envy and greed of merchants, carries on its brow the marks of the most revolting self-seeking’ (M I, 2, 379); he ends (M I, 2, 400) by seeing in man’s dependence on private property, competition and conflicting interests his most complete degradation. His logical indictment is complementary but distinct, mostly untinged by moral or ethical overtones. It rests on the necessary vacillation in economic theories of value, the ‘contradiction’ between a high ‘national income’ and the overwhelming poverty of the nation as a set of individuals, as well as on the contradiction between the allegedly harmonious operation of the laws of supply and demand and the increasing number of trade crises. Marx, on the other hand, insists that ethical deficiency and logical contradiction are necessarily connected. The criticism is not complete until they have been shown to arise from a single cause, from a ‘one-sided’ treatment of man or from a failure to see the human content of social institutions which have been illegitimately ripped out of their human context and treated as dead things. His whole tour de force in the Paris Manuscripts is to proclaim that political economy cannot be an ethically neutral study of so-called ‘objective’ relations between non-human things or laws and to bring it back into the ethical sphere by reducing it once more to its human content. The fundamental categories of political economy, Marx insists, are not labour, capital, profits, rents, land. The fundamental category is man, man and his human activities. These activities cannot be abstracted from man; they must be seen as integral expressions of his humanity. The categories of which traditional political economists speak are nothing but abstractions (in the Hegelian sense) from the true essence of society — man. The economists objectify, reify, set up in limited and abstracted shape, as dead objects, what are vital human activities, activities that can only be grasped and correctly developed as part of the whole social man.[54]

It is because Marx rejects the conception of ethical criticism as being the application of ‘ideal’ standards and treats his ethico-logic as grounded in the way things occur, that he can insist that his criticism is purely empirical. ‘My results have been gained through a wholly empirical analysis, founded on a conscientious critical study of political economy’ (M I, 3, 33; cf. EPM 15-16). The first thing such a study reveals to Marx is the utter inadequacy of the abstract(ed) laws of political economy which fall into necessary contradictions and fail to grasp the fundamental principle that makes these contradictions necessary. The political economist says that originally and by its nature the entire product of labour belongs to the worker; at the same time he grants that in fact the worker receives nothing but the smallest and most unavoidable part of this product. He says that everything is bought with labour and that capital is nothing but accumulated labour; yet he grants that the labourer cannot buy everything but must sell himself and his human qualities. He says that labour is the only unchangeable value of things; yet nothing is more contingent than the value of labour; nothing is exposed to greater variations. The division of labour, according to the political economist, increases the productive power of labour and the wealth of society; yet it impoverishes the worker. According to their own nature, land rent and capital profit are deductions suffered by wages; in actual fact, wages are a deduction which land and capital permit to the worker. While the political economist claims that the interests of the worker are never in opposition to the interests of society, society stands constantly and necessarily opposed to the interests of the worker. (M I, 3, 43-5; EPM 28-9.)

By means of the political economist’s own words, then, Marx has striven to show that labour, in so far as it increases work, is harmful. This is the paradoxical result of the abstracted laws of political economy. The worker sinks to the level of the most miserable commodity, his misery standing in inverse relationship to the size and power of his production. On the side of capital, the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, i.e., the frightful reimposition of monopoly. Thus the distinction between capitalist and landed proprietor and between peasant and industrial worker finally disappears and the entire society must inevitably break apart into the two classes of property owners and propertyless workers. (M I, 3, 81; EPM 67.)

Here, then, we have the first version of what is undoubtedly Marx’s best-known contribution to intellectual endeavour: his analysis of society based on private property in the stage of commodity-production. It is shot through with ‘contradictions': the more the worker produces, the less he earns and enjoys; the more the capitalist competes, the more capitalists are ruined. At the very beginning of his venture into political economy, Marx has thus satisfied the requirements of his dialectical critique of society: he has shown to his own satisfaction that civil society (i.e., political economy)[55] is necessarily, by its very essence, self-contradictory, working by its own logic toward inevitable break-up and collapse. But Marx wants to go further than this. He wants to display the basic ground of the ‘contradictions’ in political economy. This ground cannot be displayed, or even understood, if we remain within the abstracted laws of political economy, if we follow the political economist in simply assuming the existence of private property and inventing fanciful primitive qualities, such as Adam Smith’s tendency to barter, which simply assume what they are supposed to explain. But we can discover the basic ground of the whole movement of political economy if we begin, not with mythological prehistory, but with a contemporary fact:

The more riches the worker produces, the more his production increases in power and scope, the poorer he becomes. The more commodities a worker produces, the cheaper a commodity he becomes. The devaluation of the world of men proceeds in direct proportion to the exploitation[56] of the world of things. Labour not only produces commodities, but it turns itself and the worker into commodities and does so in proportion to the extent that it produces commodities in general.
(M I, 3, 82; EPM 69.)

This fact is the fundamental fact of political economy for Marx. It can be explained, explained in its very essence, as a necessary phenomenon, by careful logical analysis. If the worker is impoverished by producing riches, this can only be because production under the existing economic conditions takes away from the worker something that is part of him. This is what the fundamental fact of political economy expresses:

The object which labour produces, its product, confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour which has congealed in an object, which has become material; it is the objectification of work. The bringing of labour to reality (its realisation) is its objectification. Under the conditions of political economy, the realisation of labour, making it into a reality, appears as loss of reality by the worker, objectification appears as loss of the object, as bondage to it; appropriation appears as estrangement, as alienation.
(M I, 3, 83; EPM 69.)

Here, then, we have Marx’s first detailed exposition of his theory of alienation in economic life. In the Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel had argued that mind or spirit passes historically through the stages of Entäusserung (externalising or projecting itself into objects) and Entfremdung (the estrangement or alienation that follows when mind treats its own externalisations as independent and even hostile objects confronting it). Feuerbach had strikingly applied the concept of alienation to religion, in which he saw man projecting his own powers into the blue mists of heaven and then falling on his knees to worship them as the powers of an alien, external being. Marx in the Paris Manuscripts pays strong tributes to the importance of Feuerbach’s ‘ revolution in philosophy'; the historical background of Marx’s thought and his debt to previous thinkers need not detain us here. The importance of alienation for Marx is that it can be used to show that the worker’s misery is logically inescapable under the conditions of economic life as we have known it. Alienation is the fundamental fact of political economy. Political economists have been able to conceal this only by failing to examine the direct relationship between the worker (labour) and his product. Because of this alienation ‘the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume, the more values he creates, the less value — the less dignity — he himself has; the better-shaped the product, the more misshapen the worker, the more civilised his product, the more barbaric the worker’. Thus, ‘labour, produces wonders for the rich, but strips the worker ... It produces culture, but idiocy, cretinism for the worker.’ (M I, 3, 84-5; EPM 71.)

So far, Marx has emphasised only the alienation of the worker’s product from the worker, but this alienation is possible only because alienation is enshrined in the very activity of production, in the worker’s labour itself. In what does this alienation within labour consist?

Firstly, in the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being, in the fact that he therefore does not affirm himself in his work, but negates himself in it, that he does not feel content, but unhappy in it, that he develops no free physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. Therefore the worker feels himself only outside his work, while in his work he feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working and when he works he is not at home. His work, therefore, is not voluntary but coerced; it is forced labour. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but only a means for satisfying needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion, labour is avoided like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own but somebody else’s, that in his labour he belongs not to himself, but to someone else ... The worker’s activity is not his own activity. It belongs to another, it is the loss of his self.

The result, therefore, is that man (the worker) no longer feels himself acting freely except in his animal functions, eating, drinking and procreating, or at most in his dwelling, ornaments, etc., while in his human functions he feels more and more like an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

Drinking, eating and procreating are admittedly also genuinely human functions. But in their abstraction, which separates them from the remaining range of human functions and turns them into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal.
(M I, 3, 85-6; EPM 72-3.)

We thus see alienation, says Marx, to have two aspects. Firstly, we have the worker’s relationship to the product of his work, which is for him an alien object ruling over him. This alienation, according to Marx, is accompanied by a similar relationship to Nature, to ‘the world of the senses’. Nature should be the stuff on which the worker’s labour makes itself real, through which it is active. But in being alienated from the product of his work, the worker is also alienated from Nature. Secondly, we have the worker’s alienation of his own activity and therefore of his personal life — ‘for what is life other than activity, than doing things’ (M I, 3, 86). This, in other words, is the worker’s self-alienation. Marx now wants to show that these two forms of alienation imply and create two further forms: man’s alienation from his own universal being as a man and from other men, which may be brought under one head by treating them as two aspects of man’s alienation from his genus or species.

The actual argument is more than somewhat metaphysical. It depends upon a conception which Feuerbach expounds at the very beginning of his Essence of Christianity (pp. 1-5) and which we have already met, in slightly different form, in Marx’s earliest works. Marx, as we have seen, took man’s freedom and self-determined activity to be the specifically human characteristic that distinguishes man from the determined and conditioned beast. Feuerbach treats this freedom as consciousness, especially as consciousness of man’s generic being. The animal has limited consciousness of itself as an individual, but that is all; its inner life is one with its outer life. Man, on the other hand, has both an inner and an outer life. ‘The inner life of man’, says Feuerbach, ‘is the life which has relation to his species — to his general, as distinguished from his individual, nature.’ It is on this consciousness of himself as a general, generic being that the functions of thought and speech depend when they are performed alone, without another being present. Marx, in the Paris Manuscripts makes this conception somewhat more concrete. Both men and animals live from inorganic nature. But the animal, according to Marx, ‘is directly one with its life-activities. It does not distinguish itself from them. It is they.’ To be sure, the animal, like man, is able to produce — a nest, a home, etc. But it produces only what it needs directly for itself or for its young. It produces only under the domination of direct physical needs. It produces only itself — in the sense that it can produce only according to the measure and the need of the species to which it belongs. Man, in contrast, ‘makes his life-activities themselves an object of his willing and of his consciousness. He has conscious life-activities.’ It is because of this and only because of this that his activity is free activity. When man produces, he can produce even in the absence of physical needs; indeed, he produces truly only in the absence of physical needs. In his production, man is not bound by the measure and need of his own species alone; he does not merely produce himself but reproduces the whole of Nature. He can create according to the measure of all species and knows how to fashion each object according to its own inherent measure; hence he creates according to the laws of beauty. But man’s consciousness of himself as a generic being depends upon his being able to appropriate and dominate Nature and to see his own reflection in it:

It is precisely in working on the world of objects that man first genuinely proves himself to be a generic being. This production is his active generic life. Through it and because of it Nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is therefore the objectification of the generic life of man, in so far as man duplicates himself not only intellectually, in consciousness, but practically and therefore recognises himself in a world which lie himself has made. Hence, in so far as alienated labour tears from man the object of his production, it tears away from him his generic life, his real and actual objectification as a species, and transforms his advantage over the animal into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, Nature, has been taken away from him.
(M I, 3, 88-9; EPM 76.)

Marx’s ‘proof’ that man’s alienation from his species is implied by his alienation from the product of his labour (and not merely displayed in the bellum omnium of economic life) consists of nothing more solid than these metaphorical transitions, but he concludes emphatically:

Alienated labour therefore:

(3) turns the generic being of man, both Nature and the intellectual wealth of his species, into a being alien to him, into a means for his individual existence. It alienates his own body from man, it alienates from him both Nature outside him and his intellectual being, his human nature.

(4) A direct consequence of the fact that man is alienated from the product of his labour, from his life activity, from his generic being, is the alienation of man from man ...
(M I, 3, 89; EPM 76-7.)

How then, Marx goes on to ask, does this concept of alienated labour express itself in real life? To whom do the worker’s product and activity belong? They cannot belong to the gods; they can only belong to another man, a not-worker, to whom the worker’s activity, a torment to the worker himself, is a delight and joy (M I, 3, go). Even in religious alienation we find that alienation can appear only in a relationship among men, in the relationship between the layman and the priest, for only man can dominate over man. But the not-worker, the capitalist, is as subject to self-alienation as the worker, only he is not as conscious of suffering from it: ‘Everything which appears in the worker as the activity of alienation, of estrangement, appears in the non-worker as the condition or state of alienation, of estrangement.'[57] (M I, 3, 94.)

We have seen how Marx in his article ‘On the Jewish Question’ already treated money as the power which turns man into a servile, dependent being, into a commodity. In the Paris Manuscripts he devotes a special section to money as the very essence of man’s alienation. He quotes (M I, 3, 146) Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust:

Wenn ich sechs Hengste zahlen kann
Sind ihre Krafte nicht die meine?
Ich renne zu und bin ein rechter Mann
Als hatt ich vierundzwanzig Beine.[58]

and Shakespeare’s Timon apostrophising gold:

Thus much of this will make black, white; foul, fair;
Wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant ...
Thou common whore of mankind, that putt’st odds
Among the rout of nations.
(Timon of Athens, Act IV, scene iii.)

Marx elaborates the same theme:

That which money can create for me, that for which I can pay (i.e., what money can buy) — that I, the possessor of the money, am. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. The properties of money are the properties and essential powers of me its possessor. Thus what I am and what I am capable of is in no way determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy the most beautiful woman. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness, its power of repulsion, is destroyed by money. I — according to my individual nature — am lame, but money gives me twenty legs, therefore I am not lame. I am a wicked, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid man; but people honour money, and therefore also its possessor. Money is the highest good, therefore its possessor is good. Besides, money saves me the trouble of being dishonest; therefore I am presumed to be honest; I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things; how can its possessor lack mind?
(M I, 3, 147; cf. EPM 138-9.)

[59] ... When to my car
My money yokes six spankers, are
Their limbs not my limbs ... Mine all the forces I combine —
The four-and-twenty legs are mine.
(John Anster’s translation).

From Shakespeare, says Marx, we can see the two leading characteristics of money:

(1) It is the visible divinity, the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and overturning of things; it binds together impossibilities.

(2) It is the common whore, the universal pimp, of men and nations. The confounding and overturning of all human and natural qualities, the coupling of impossibilities — the divine power — achieved by money arise out of its essence as the alienated, externalised generic being of man, which has conveyed itself to another. It is the alienated ability or wealth[60] of mankind. (M I, 3, 147-8; EPM 139.)

The analysis of economic conditions and of money then, according to Marx, reveals the inadequacy of traditional political economy and of the presuppositions of economic life. It reveals that the contradictions of political economy and of economic life are not accidental, but necessary, results of the fundamental presupposition on which they rest — that alienation of man’s labour and man’s products from man which is expressed in private property. Until political economy grasps its own essence as alienated human activity, and through the supercession of private property reunites man’s activities and products with man as an undivided social and generic being, these contradictions cannot be resolved and overcome. Because of its failure to do this, political economy, instead of being a science of man, ends by negating man. It is based on a simple, inhuman, moral principle: eat less, drink less, practise self-denial, give up as many human needs as possible and save more. ‘Its true ideal is the ascetic but usurious miser and the ascetic but productive slave’ (M I, 3, 130).

The fact that political economy rests on abstracted laws arising from man’s alienation comes out particularly clearly, for Marx, in its relation to morality. It is a feature of systems based on alienation, he argues, that each system has its own self-sufficient laws and falls into contradiction with other systems. Each system studies a particular sphere of alienation; none studies the whole, undivided man. Thus, what is utter depravity to morality is entirely consonant with the laws of political economy:

If I ask the political economist: Am I obeying the laws of economics if I draw money from selling and surrendering my body to another’s lust? (The factory workers in France call the prostitution of their wives and daughters the xth working hour, which is literally correct.) — Or am I acting contrary to political economy if I sell my friend to the Moroccans? ... Then the political economist answers: You are not transgressing my laws, but see what Cousin Ethics and Cousin Religion have to say. My political economic ethics and religion have nothing to reproach you with, but — But whom am I to believe now, political economy or ethics?
(M I, 3, 131; EPM 120.)

It is thus, according to Marx, that political economy ignores the unemployed labourer, the man behind the work in so far as he is outside the relationship of labour. ‘The thief, the swindler, the beggar, the unemployed, the starving, miserable and criminal working man — these are figures that do not exist for political economy, but only for other eyes: for the eyes of the doctor, the judge, the grave-digger and the bum-bailiff’ (M I, 3, 97).[61]

This, then, is Marx’s critique of economics and the doctrine of alienation in terms of which he seeks to explain the necessary contradictions of ‘civil society’ or economic life. The fact of alienation — the estrangement of nature and of such human functions as the political power or State from man — had already been postulated by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Mind, as Marx emphasises; but Hegel develops the concept of alienation only in the sphere of ideas, while Marx seeks to show its practical nature in the concrete social and economic life of man.

The metaphysical foundations and empirical ethical content of the concept of alienation we shall examine shortly, in Part III. The underlying conception of man’s products as in some sense ‘truly part of man’, of nature as something which man ‘appropriates’, of consciousness as presupposing man’s ‘universal and generic being’, of labour as something that ‘congeals’ in the object it produces — all this, we shall seek to show, must be rejected. Yet the concept of alienation, the indictment of money, we shall suggest, has empirical content and ethical relevance over and above its merely suggestive power (its focusing of attention on the social background of economic operations, its evocation of the interdependence of all social phenomena). But for Marx himself the concept of alienation has a further significance, a significance that gave it a fundamental role in his social dialectic. In seeing alienation as the ‘essence’ of economic life in its ‘political economic’ form, he had sought to reduce all the ‘contradictions’ of economic life to a single fact: the human self-alienation expressed in private property. If he is right, then the removal of that basic ground — of human alienation and private property — will inevitably result in the removal of all the contradictions that stem from it. It will, according to Marx, usher in the rational society of the complete, unalienated man.