The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

14. Historical Materialism and the Overcoming of Alienation

THE distinction between freedom and alienation, we have seen, was the ethical leitmotif of Marx’s philosophical and political development. What Hegel and Feuerbach had seen in the history of human thinking, Marx saw in the history of human production and social life. It was alienation that Marx discovered in the facts, as well as the theory, of political economy; it was the tension and instability resulting from alienation which would inevitably end in its collapse and the inauguration of a new, un-alienated, economic and social life. Yet in the economic magnum opus of his mature period — Das Kapital — he does not rely on the term ‘alienation’ at all. Was it, then, one of the casualties of his tendency toward economic reductionism? Had it been dropped as a ‘philosophic’ or ‘ethical’ concept having no place in his new objective and scientific historical materialism?

The answer is no. The positive content which Marx gave to the term ‘alienation’ remains central to the position he is expounding in Capital. The mental process of objectifying one’s own product and allowing it to dominate one Marx now calls the fetishism of commodities (K I, 76-89; C I, 4); it remains the same process. Man’s loss of control over his labour power Marx calls his dehumanisation; it, too, is the same process — a process which for Marx remains of central importance to the understanding of capitalism. Man’s loss of control over the product of his work Marx now calls exploitation; a term which does not mean that Marx thinks the capitalist is getting too much — more than is ‘reasonable’ but which underlines his insistence that what belongs to one man, or to men in general, is being appropriated by others, or by some men in particular. Exploitation is made possible by the creation of surplus value; but its basic ground for Marx remains the alienation of man from his labour power, the fact that man’s activity becomes a commodity. In the German Ideology and in Marx’s economic notes and drafts made between 1850 and 1859 the connection of all this with the term ‘alienation’ is made specific (cf, e.g., G I, 64-7; M 1, 5, 56-9; Grundrisse, 73-82, 88-90, 151-62, 504-8). But we do not need to have the connection made specific, to have the actual term flourished in the text, to see precisely the same theme in Wage Labour and Capital, the Critique of Political Economy and Capital itself. ‘Marx’s condemnation of capitalism’, writes Karl Popper,[94] a critic not at all interested in alienation, ‘is fundamentally a moral condemnation. The system is condemned, for the cruel injustice inherent in it which is combined with full ‘formal’ justice and righteousness. The system is condemned, because by forcing the exploiter to enslave the exploited it robs both of their freedom. Marx did not combat wealth, nor did he praise poverty. He hated capitalism, not for its accumulation of wealth, but for its oligarchical character; he hated it because in this system wealth means political power in the sense of power over men. Labour power is made a commodity; that means that men must sell themselves on the market. Marx hated the system because it resembled slavery.’

Marx, of course, is not confronting capitalism with a moral principle established independently of his enquiries and condemning it for not being ‘what it ought to be’. Whatever the logical weaknesses Marx’s account of the distinction between dependence and freedom may have, the distinction rests, as we have seen, on an empirical basis. If Marx and his readers are drawn toward freedom and repelled by dependence and alienation, this is not because he has striven to show that they ‘ought to be’. It is rather because some goods, at least, operate in Marx and in many of his readers, so that the morality of freedom, the sympathies and antipathies of goods themselves, are something he and they can also feel. Marx, of course, in his mature work as much as in his earlier work, wants to go somewhat further than this. He wants to show that history is inevitably working toward freedom, toward the Communist society where men’s production will no longer enslave them, but will become part of them, where tools will cease to be men’s masters and become their servants. But however unfounded this view may be, it, too, is not — in Marx’s sense — a moral view. It neither presupposes nor establishes a new moral obligation in place of those which Marx exposed.

In his mature work, then, Marx describes the same process and predicts the same goal as he described and predicted in the Paris Manuscripts. Much of the seeming gulf between the ‘philosophical’ terminology of these Manuscripts and the empirical descriptive terminology aimed at in Capital has been bridged for us with the publication of the Grundrisse. These notes and drafts reveal clearly the extent to which Marx remained a philosopher, thinking in philosophical categories and then seeking for their empirical content. This is what he did with ‘alienation’ and — less successfully — with ‘freedom’. The results of his quest did not, it seemed to him, destroy these concepts: on the contrary, they gave these concepts richer content and confirmed their value.

There is, of course, one obvious distinction between Marx’s conception of alienation in the Paris Manuscripts and his later conception. In the Manuscripts, he still sees man as alienated from a generic, social being which is at once the universal nature common to all men and the essential nature underlying man’s empirical development. In the Theses on Feuerbach, the German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto he rejects this conception specifically. There is no eternal or essential human nature from which man has become alienated, no ‘Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy’ (Communist Manifesto, SW I, 55, supra, 11, 8, 111, 12). ‘Human nature [Wesen],’ he now writes (in the sixth thesis on Feuerbach), ‘is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relationships.’ (M 1, 5, 535.) But the metaphysical conception of an essential human nature, however much Marx may need it for his conception of Communism, is certainly not necessary for the portrayal of alienation under capitalism, even in the form in which Marx depicts it in the Paris Manuscripts. He has no difficulty in exhibiting the same alienation, and the same features of it, in his later work. ‘The exercise of labour power is the worker’s own life-activity,’ he writes in Wage Labour and Capital[95] (SW 1, 77; M 1, 6, 475), ‘the manifestation of his own life. And this life-activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of subsistence. Thus his life-activity is for him only a means to enable him to exist. He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labour as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.’ (Marx’s italics.) This is the alienation of the worker from his own activity which Marx noted in the Paris Manuscripts. It implies, Marx had argued in the Manuscripts, the worker’s alienation from his product. This, too, is reaffirmed in Wage Labour and Capital:

What [the worker] produces for himself is not the silk he weaves, not the gold he draws from the mine, not the palace he builds. What he produces for himself is wages, and silk, gold, palace resolve themselves for him into a definite quantity of the means of subsistence, perhaps into a cotton jacket, some copper coins and a lodging in a cellar.
(Loc. cit.)

The worker’s alienation from his activity and from his product: these conceptions are not merely reaffirmed in Capital, they form one of the major themes running through the entire work.

There was a third aspect of alienation noted in the Paris Manuscripts — man’s alienation from other men and therefore from society and social powers. The same alienation is stressed in the first and third volumes of Capital, e.g.:

Since the instruments of labour [under capitalism] confront the labourer as independent, economy in their use also appears as a special operation which has nothing to do with him and which is therefore separated from the methods which raise his personal productivity.
(K I, 340; C I, 357.)

Finally, as we saw earlier, in actuality the worker treats the social character of his work, its combination with the work of others for a common purpose, as a power alien to him; the instruments necessary to bring this combination into being are alien property to him, to the waste of which he would be quite indifferent if he were not forced to treat them economically.
(K III, 105; C III, 102.)

This alienation between man and the social character of his activity can be seen in every sphere of capitalist society: it is presupposed by the existence of law, religion, etc. But only under capitalism does this alienation appear in all its nakedness. In feudalism, as we have seen Marx stressing in his earlier work, man is dependent but not yet divided; in capitalism his dependence is intensified in practice and his division is accomplished in theory (K I, 82-7; C I, 88-96). The slave sold his person, the serf sold part of his labour power, the worker under capitalism sells all of his labour power, but he sells it piecemeal. His alienation is therefore more thorough-going, more complete, than that of the slave and of the serf who preceded him in the arena of history. (Cf. The German Ideology, M 1, 5, 56-9, GI, 64-8; Grundrisse, 73-82; Capital, K I, 76-89, C I, 81-95.)

The final aspect of alienation brought out in the Paris Manuscripts is man’s alienation from nature. Instead of controlling it, making it part of his being, he is dominated by it, becomes part of its being. In the Grundrisse and Capital the reference is more frequently to production, but the concept remains the same. Instead of making production his activity, controlling its laws, man becomes a mere tool of production and develops according to its laws. In this sense, the capitalist is as dependent as the worker. Both are shaped and determined, in their character, their activity and their beliefs, by the inexorable laws of the economic process. Thus the very epitome of the laws of historical development in the class society that forms the pre-history of mankind — the materialist interpretation of history — is for Marx the ultimate and fundamental expression of human alienation: it recognises as law man’s subjugation by powers that should be and once were his own. The coming of Communism, the supersession of alienation, means that man ceases to be the product and slave of production, and becomes its master.

There is no basis, then, for seeing Marx’s rejection of a ‘metaphysical’ human nature as radically affecting his use of alienation in the economic and social contexts in which he had always thought its value to lie. It is true — as the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. puts it — that ‘by “estrangement” or “alienation”, Marx means the forced labour of the labourer for the capitalist, the appropriation by the capitalist of the product of a worker’s labour and the separation of the labourer from the means of production which, being in the capitalist’s possession, confront the labourer as an alien, enslaving power’. (EPM, Introduction, p. 8.) But this is not all he means. Dependence is not confined to capitalism: it began with the division of labour and private property, capitalism is only its most virulent and pervasive form. Economic dependence necessarily produces human dependence in all other fields — in religion, morality, law. The fact that Marx no longer uses the general term .alienation’ in Capital to sum up all these ramifications of economic dependence, does not prevent him from taking every opportunity in the same work to emphasise or display the pervasive dependence and dehumanisation on which capitalism rests and which it constantly extends and intensifies.

The distinction between freedom and alienation, I have argued, cannot be understood without recognising that Marx has grasped, however instinctively, the positive distinction between the operation of goods and of evils, between the morality of freedom associated with the productive spirit and the linked motives of domination and submission that emerged in the consumer’s morality, in the subordination of activity to ‘ends’. It is because the history of artistic and scientific production displays the producer’s morality more clearly, more unequivocally, than industrial production — and only because of this — that there is a certain superficial plausibility in connecting Marx’s vision of man in Communist society with the creative work of an artist living in a society of artists. Nothing in Marx’s mature work repudiates or alters this conception of the distinction between free and alienated living. Not only that, but Marx himself brings out, in the Grundrisse, the positive ground of his distinction and its intimate connection with the character of artistic and scientific activity:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou labour! was Jehovah’s curse, which he gave to Adam. And it is thus as curse that A[dam] Smith regards labour. ‘Rest’ appears as the adequate condition, as identical with ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness’. A. Smith seems far from seeing that the individual, ‘in his normal condition of health, strength, activity, capacity and skill,’ has also the need for a normal portion of work, for an end to rest. It is true that the amount of labour is itself determined externally, by the purpose sought and the obstacles to the attainment of that purpose which must be overcome through labour. But A. Smith has just as little conception of the fact that this overcoming of obstacles is itself the activity of freedom — of the further fact that the appearance of merely external natural necessity is stripped off from external purposes and that these purposes are revealed as purposes which the individual sets himself — of the fact, therefore, that the overcoming of obstacles is self-realisation, objectification of the subject, therefore concrete freedom, whose action is precisely work. He is right, however, in seeing that in its historical forms as slavery, feudal services and wage labour, labour always appears as something repulsive, as external forced labour, and that not working appears in relation to this as ‘freedom and happiness’. This is doubly true: it is true of this contrasted labour, of the labour which has not yet created the subjective and objective conditions ... to make it travail attractif, self-realisation of the individual, which does not mean that it becomes mere fun, mere amusement, as Fourier thinks with all the naivete of a grisette. Truly free labour, e.g., composition, is damned serious at the same time, it is the most intensive exertion. The work of material production can acquire this character only by (1) having its social character affirmed (2) having a scientific character and being universal labour, the exertion of a man not as a tamed natural force, but as a subject which appears in the process of production not only in its natural form and development as part of nature, but as an activity regulating all natural forces.
(Grundrisse, 504-5)

These notes were not meant for publication. But this is how Marx reacts, this is how he saw dependence and freedom.


In the years between 1844 and the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867 Marx read and appropriated into his thinking an enormous mass of economic material. As an economist he was not shallow: he was not merely a Ricardian glibly seizing upon the labour theory of value as a convenient tool for bringing out the alienation, dehumanisation, exploitation inherent in capitalism. He was also, in economics, a very learned and a very perceptive man. He became engrossed in all the technical and professional details of his subject: monetary theory, accumulation, constant and variable capital, prices, absolute and relative surplus value, trade cycles, labour conditions and factory organisation. What is amazing in view of this is not how much new material came in as the Paris Manuscripts grew into the three volumes of Capital, but how much of the old material and of the old thought remained. Nowhere is Marx’s conception of the appropriation of things external to man exemplified more clearly than in his own intellectual work. He took materials from everywhere, but he subsumed them to his own purposes, moulded them into his system, strove to weld everything into a single coherent structure whose fundamental plan retained its original purpose and thrust.

Marx, we have seen, did come to reject any conception of an essential and eternal human nature preceding and underlying the process of production which has come to dominate man. The importance of this rejection as a radical break in his development should not be overrated. Already in the Paris Manuscripts, for all his alleged Young Hegelianism, Marx had insisted that it is only in ‘working on the world of objects’, in production, that man proves himself to be a generic or social being. (M 1, 33 88, supra, II, 7). But there he still thought of the generic being as somehow part of the ‘essence’ of man — proved rather than created by production. Now, in his mature work, he combines the belief in a universal, social, generic being of man with his historical materialism by seeing this being as the result of production, which socialises man, brings him into union with his fellow-men, and lays the technological foundations which enable man to become the master and not the slave of Nature. This is the dialectic of capitalism: the ‘contradiction’ between its socialisation of man and his labour, its creation of ever-increasing organisation and interdependence, and its separation of men into classes, its alienation of one man from another, even within the same class.

By sympathy, Marx always remained a philosopher. Throughout twenty years of intensive labour in the economic field, he despised economics. His correspondence with Engels in the later years of his life is studded with gross and contemptuous references to the subject. He resented the fact that it prevented him from turning to other fields that interested him: law, morality, aesthetics. But he knew economics to be fundamental to his position: the back-breaking labour could not be avoided. His extraordinary achievement had been to take the ontological concept of alienation and invest it — quite early in his thought — with concrete social and economic content. It was because alienation and freedom remained central to his thought that the argument had to be followed to the bitter end.

The final flowering of alienation was capitalism. The collapse of capitalism had therefore to be shown inevitable, not by moral criticism but from the logic of its own development. This occupied much, perhaps most, of Marx’s attention. The doctrine of surplus value, the analysis of competition, the attempt to prove the inevitable pauperisation of the working masses and the ‘simplification’ of social classes are vital to Marx for this purpose. They showed, he thought, that the alienated society could not survive and could not be destroyed without radically eliminating all of its presuppositions. These presuppositions, according to Marx, are the division of labour, private property and production for monetary return — all of them essential for the appearance of alienation. Marx invests his analysis of the history of production with a tremendous mass of detailed material, but the basic outline of the preconditions and development of alienation is quite simple. The division of labour begins in the family and gradually extends throughout the society:

The division of labour implies from the outset the division of the conditions of labour, of tools and materials, and thus the splitting up of accumulated capital among different owners, and thus, also, the division between capital and labour, and the different forms of property itself. The more the division of labour develops and accumulation grows, the sharper are the forms that this process of differentiation assumes.
(M 1, 5, 56, G I, 64; cf. K I, 368ff, C I, 385ff.)

What makes this division and separation possible is that with the extended division of labour, production is no longer for use, but for money, for exchange value.

The social division of labour makes the labour [of the goods-possessor] just as one-sided as it makes his needs many-sided. For this reason his product can serve him only as an exchange value. It can acquire universal, socially accepted forms of equivalence through money, and the money is in someone else’s pocket.
(K I, III; C I, 119.)

Since money does not disclose what has been transformed into it, everything whether a commodity or not, is convertible into gold. Everything becomes saleable and purchasable. Circulation is the great social retort into which everything is thrown and out of which everything is recovered as crystallised money. Not even the bones of the saints are able to withstand this alchemy; and still less able to withstand it are more delicate res sacrosanctae extra commercium hominum. just as all the qualitative differences between commodities are effaced in money, so money on its side, a radical leveller, effaces all distinctions. But money is itself a commodity, an external object, capable of becoming the private property of any individual. Thus social power becomes a private power in the hands of a private person.
(K I, 137-8; C I, 148-9.)

The division of labour, private property and money: these three (the latter two made inevitable by the first) in turn make inevitable the alienation, the dependence and separation that pervades the whole of capitalist society. They create the division of town and country, of worker and master, of ‘individual’ and ‘society’, of man and his labour. They alienate man from other men, from his work, from his product, from his society.

How, then, is this alienation to be overcome? By the inevitable logic of the development of the productive process, which will end by destroying private property and with it the division of labour and the production for monetary gain. This is the point of Marx’s detailed analysis of the capitalist economy: it shows, Marx believed, that capitalism will be destroyed, and it shows this from ‘simple’, quite unphilosophical, economic facts.

What Marx thought to be the basic outlines of the Communist society of freedom are clear. The distinction between classes, resting on their relationship to property, would disappear with the supersession of property. So would the division of labour, the distinction between urban and rural interests, between mental and physical labour. Production and social intercourse will be stripped, for the first time, of their independent character and subjugated ‘to the power of individuals united’ (G 1, 70; M 1, 5, 60).[96] The material process of production will become ‘a process carried on by a free association of producers, under their conscious purposive control’; the relations between human beings in their practical everyday life will ‘have assumed the aspect of perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations between man and man, and between man and Nature’ (K I, 85; C I, 92).

Engels had attempted to set out what this means in concrete terms in an early draft for the Communist Manifesto — his Fundamental Principles of Communism, a revolutionary catechism written in October, 1847:

Question 20 — What will be the consequences of the final abolition of private property?

Answer — Society, by taking out of the hands of the private capitalist the utilisation of the various productive forces and means of intercourse, as well as the exchange and distribution of goods, and controlling them according to a plan based on the available means and needs of the whole society, will above all abolish all those harmful effects which at present are still connected with the operation of big industry. Crises will disappear; increased production, which is over-production for the present social order and a powerful cause of misery, will then not even prove sufficient and will have to be increased far more. Instead of bringing misery in its wake, over-production will reach beyond the immediate needs of society to the satisfaction of everybody’s needs; it will create new needs and at the same time create the means for their satisfaction. It will be the cause and determining condition of new advances; it will bring about these advances without throwing the social order into confusion, as has always been the case in the past. Big industry, free of the pressure of private ownership, will develop at an increased rate compared with which its present form will seem as small as commodity manufacture seems compared with the big industry of our days. This development of industry will provide our society with a sufficient mass of products to satisfy the needs of all. Similarly, agriculture, also prevented by the pressure of private ownership and the division into lots from utilising the improvements and scientific developments already at hand, will gain new life and provide society with a mass of products fully ample for all. Thus society will produce enough goods to arrange distribution in such a way that the needs of all its members will be satisfied. The division of society into separate classes opposed to one another will become superfluous. Not only will it be superfluous, it will even be incompatible with the new social order. The existence of classes arose out of the division of labour, and the division of labour in the form it has had hitherto disappears completely. For mechanical and chemical aids are not sufficient to bring industrial and agricultural production to the heights depicted above by themselves; the capacities of the men who utilise these aids must be developed correspondingly. just as the peasants and artisans of the last century altered their whole way of life and became quite different people when they were caught up in large industry, so the common control of production by the whole society and the resultant new development of production will both need and create totally new men. The communal control of production cannot he carried out by men like those of today, each of whom is subordinate to a single branch of production, is chained to it and exploited by it, each of whom has developed only one of his capacities at the expense of all the rest, each of whom knows only one branch, or only one branch of a branch, of the whole of production. Even industry today has increasingly less use for such people. Industry controlled in common in a planned way by the whole of society presupposes men whose capacities are developed in all directions, who are able to review the entire system of production. The division of labour, which makes one man into a peasant, another a cobbler, a third into a factory — hand and a fourth into a stock exchange speculator, is already undermined by machinery, it will disappear completely. Education will enable young people to go rapidly through the whole system of production, it will enable them to go in rotation from one branch of production to another, as the needs of society or their own inclinations may direct. It will therefore deprive them of that one-sided character, which the present division of labour stamps on every individual. In this way society organised in Communist fashion will enable its members to utilise their many-sided talents in many fields. This, however, necessarily results in the disappearance of separate classes. So Communist society on the one hand is incompatible with the continuation of classes; on the other hand the creation of this society itself provides the means for dissolving class differences.

It follows from this, that the contrast between town and country will also disappear. Wholly material causes already make the pursuit of agriculture and industry by the same men, instead of by two separate classes, a necessary condition of the Communist order. The dissemination of the peasant population on the land, compared with the crowding together of the industrial population in the large towns, is a condition which corresponds only to an as yet undeveloped stage of agriculture and industry, a barrier to all further development which can already be felt strongly in the present time.

The universal association of all members of society for the common planned exploitation of the forces of production, the increase of production at a rate that will enable it to satisfy the needs of all, the end of a state of affairs in which the needs of one are satisfied at the expense of others, the total destruction of classes and their contradictions, the development of the capacities of all members of society in all directions through the abolition of the division of labour as known hitherto, through industrial education, through the rotation of jobs, through the participation of all in the satisfactions created by all, through the fusion of town and country — these are the main results of the abolition of private property.
(M 1, 6, 516-19.)

Marx was an infinitely abler, subtler and theoretically more perceptive man than Engels. Where Engels puts thing concretely, simply and often naively, Marx tends to put them philosophically, subtly and sometimes abstrusely. He would have liked to believe what Engels believed — it is just possible that he did. Certainly, Marx, too, refers to the disappearance of the distinction between mental and physical labour (Critique of the Gotha Programme, SW II, 23), to the shortening of the working day (K III, 873-4; C III, 954-5), to the combination of productive labour and education ‘as a method not only increasing social production but as the only method of producing human beings developed in all their aspects’ (K I, 509; C I, 530). But he is certainly less emphatic about the social unity of Communism resting on the fact that technology will be able to satisfy all of men’s needs. He speaks, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme (loc. cit.) of the ultimate period when ‘the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly’ (my italics); ‘the realm of freedom’, he insists, ‘begins in actuality only when labour which is determined by need and external utility ceases’ (K III, 873; C III, 954); but he does not see this as flowing from the satisfaction of all needs. Marx was simply not the utilitarian that Engels was; he was not concerned with how much a man had, but with the way in which he acquired what he had, with the conditions under which he worked. The essential thing for Marx that makes production truly social is the abolition of money as a circulating exchange value (K III, 932; C III), the fact that the individual is no longer an abstract buyer and seller of commodities, but a participant in the social business of production and of consumption. In truly communal production

its communal nature is taken as the foundation of production. The labour of the individual is taken from the start as social labour. Therefore whatever the specific material form of the product which he creates or helps to create may be, that which he has bought with his labour is not a special specific product, but a specific share of the communal production. For this reason he has no special product that he has to exchange. His product is not an exchange value. The product does not have to be translated into a specific character form in order to acquire a universal character for the individual. Instead of a division of labour, necessarily ending in the exchange of exchange value, we would have an organisation of labour, which results in the participation of the individual in communal consumption.
(Grundrisse, 88-9.)

What does this passage mean? It means, I think, that Marx was both far less and far more naive than Engels about production under Communism. He foresaw tremendous improvements in working conditions, a considerable decrease in the amount of labour needed from each man as a result of technological advance and the abolition of any need for labour-discipline of the capitalist type (K III, 103; C III, 100). In its stead, there would be social determination, by the community, of the working day and of the distribution of labour (K III, 213, 907; C III, 221, 992) and, naturally, increased but more centralised book-keeping. That resources would still need to be husbanded, and allocated among alternative uses, Marx understands quite well;[97] that people would have to do extra work on behalf of those in the community who cannot work he himself mentions (K III, 932; C III, 1021-2). He is simply not concerned to portray Communism as the society of plenty; he is concerned to portray it as a society of human dignity: a society in which labour acquires dignity and becomes free because it is carried out by full and conscious participants in a community given over to co-operation and common aims. The model of a co-operative, productive community of artists or scientists (which Engels never understood) is again apposite: its members may hunger, undertake enormous exertions, spend hours on tasks not interesting in themselves — but they know what they are doing and why they want to do it. In that lies their freedom and their dignity. It is for these reasons, because Marx himself has the productive morality, that he is more concerned with time than he is with plenty:

Assuming communal production, the determination of time remains important. The less time society needs to produce wheat, cattle, etc., the more time it has for other production, whether material or intellectual. As in the case of the single individual, the universality of its development, of its satisfaction and its activity, depends on saving time. Economy of time is what all economics finally comes down to. Society must thus divide its time usefully in order to arrive at a measure of production suitable to its total needs; just as the individual must divide his time properly to gain knowledge in suitable proportion or to satisfy the different demands on his activity. (Grundrisse, 89.)

Marx’s vision of Communism, then, is not the vision of a society of plenty, in which conflicting interests have disappeared because everyone has everything he wants, or, at least, needs. But is he relying on an economic reductionism, on the view that all alienation and conflict stem from private property, and will therefore disappear when private property is abolished? There is much in Marx’s work to suggest this view. Yet fundamentally, I believe, he felt a certain uneasiness about it. His vision of the coming of Communism, as we have seen, retained much that was metaphysical about it. The inevitability of the complete supersession of property depends on nothing more concrete than the claim that the proletariat, being divorced from all property, must make the abolition of property its ‘principle’ — it is here that Marx has made the least advance on the views he held in 1843 and 1844. Capital gives the impression that he is desperately looking for specific, concrete connections that will show the actual truly free, truly communal form of the society that succeeds capitalism inevitable. This is why he is anxious to stress the co-operation and socialisation developing within capitalism. He sees the seeds of Communism in the limited company, ‘the dissolution of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself’ (K III, 479; C III, 519); he sees them also in the co-operative factories of workers themselves (K III, 481; C III, 521). He is anxious to show that even under capitalism the truly human quality of the worker can appear, especially when he is freed from the crippling effects of the detailed division of labour.[98] But Marx is not willing to stake too much on these examples; the character of Communism as the society in which property is completely overcome and production controlled by the free association of producers is assumed throughout Capital and never demonstrated in detail.

Within a few years, the glibness of Marx’s vision was being questioned, especially by men of anarchist tendencies who insisted that Marx had grossly underrated the despotism imposed by technology itself, by the very nature of factory production. Engels, with his hard-headed ‘realism’ and no understanding whatever of the subtleties of Marx’s conception of freedom, was in no position to resist their arguments. To question the nature of authority in a factory, he argued in a polemic with some Italian anarchists, is plainly utopian:

At least with regard to the hours of work one may write upon the portals of these factories: Lasciate ogni autonomia, voi che entrate! [leave, ye that enter in, all autonomy behind!] If man, by dint of his knowledge and inventive genius, has subdued the forces of Nature, the latter avenge themselves upon him by subjecting him, in so far as he employs them, to a veritable despotism, independent of all social organisation. Wanting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel.
(Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. L. S. Feuer, p. 483.)

Marx, I think, would have replied quite differently. The authority in a factory would have seemed quite different to him from external dependence or capitalist labour discipline once the social nature and control of production had been presupposed. Why? Marx could not quite say this in terms of his historical materialism, but obviously his answer is: because the individual’s attitudes to authority will be quite different. The force of the authority will not flow from an external structure imposed upon him, but from the nature of the activities in which he is engaging freely and consciously. Those who have authority will be fellow-producers, seeking the same productivity as he seeks: their ‘authority’ will rest on competence and experience he himself recognises and admires.

In concrete human terms, this situation is again not entirely utopian. Such voluntary acceptance of guidance and of the rules necessary for the continuation of an activity can be found in institutions and teams seized with the productive spirit. How such guidance and such rules appear to any individual in the institution will, in fact, depend upon his ‘attitude’, i.e., on the extent to which he himself is seized by the productive spirit. This is not to say that conflicts of views or competing interests will not break out in an organisation given over to production; but in so far as the productive spirit is strong within the organisation such conflicts will be subordinated to the needs and rules of the productive activity itself.

What is utopian in Marx’s vision is his constant reliance on the productive spirit, on the operation of goods in individuals, without paying any attention to their character, to the conditions in which they arise in any given individual and spread through a society, and to the character of the forces opposing them. It is here that the ‘human essence’ is still assumed in Marx’s mature work. Co-operation and production are taken as the ‘normal’ way of working of the individual freed from the pressures of external determination; a view for which Marx provides no evidence and could provide no evidence. Above all, he fails to consider the view — which his own concrete examples of free activity suggest — that productive organisation can only result from an already existing productive spirit: not merely from the interdependence created by capitalism, but from what Sorel calls ‘the heroic values’ of enterprise, immersion in productive activity and indifference to reward.

Here is the central weakness of Marx’s vision. Unlike Engels, Marx was not a utilitarian; he was not trying to build a society of the future on the enlightened self-interest of the individual, on the promise of peace and plenty. The freedom and dignity he proclaimed as the goal of history were not entirely a utopian vision: such freedom and such dignity have been displayed by men and women in their life and work. But only those who have such dignity and such freedom can bring it about. Marx would have liked to believe that the industrial proletariat was evolving such freedom, such enterprise, even under capitalism. But he was not prepared to stake much on the conception. History seemed a more powerful ally. The proletariat remained for him fundamentally a vehicle of history: not a class displaying enterprise, production and co-operation, but a class denied enterprise, production and co-operation, not a class that has freed itself from the shackles of property, but a class denied property, a class whose whole character consisted of nothing more than its exclusion from property, than its suffering. In not seeing the proletariat as the bearers of enterprise, as the class of free men, Marx may have been right; but if he was right his vision was doomed. In fact, the proletariat proved more thoroughly the child of capitalism than Marx had ever dreamt possible: the movement he founded helped to destroy the vision he worked for.