Man in Marxist Theory. Lucien Séve 1974

Human Personality and Dialectical Materialism

Written: 1974
Source: Man in Marxist Theory, Lucien Sève
Translated: John McGreal
Published: The Harvester Press, 1978


‘History is the true natural history of man (on which more later).” ‘The cult of abstract man, which formed the kernel of Feuerbach’s new religion had to be replaced by the science of real men and of their historical development.


In the 1844 Manuscripts Marx wrote: 

We see how the history of industry and the established objective existence of industry are the open book of man’s essential powers, the perceptibly existing human psychology. Hitherto this was not conceived in its connection with man’s essential being, but only in an external relation of utility, because, moving in the realm of estrangement, people could only think of man’s general mode of being — religion or history in its abstract- general character as politics, art, literature, etc. — as the reality of man’s essential powers and man’s species-activity. We have before us the objectified essential powers of man in the form of sensuous, alien, useful objects, in the form of estrangement, displayed in ordinary material industry ... A psychology for which this book, the part of history existing in the mast perceptible and accessible form, remains a closed book, cannot become a genuine, comprehensive and real science. What indeed are we to think of a science which airily abstracts from this large part of human labour and which fails to feel its own incompleteness, while such a wealth of human endeavor, unfolded before it, means nothing more to it than, perhaps, what can be expressed in one word — ‘need’, ‘vulgar need’?’ 

When, today, one re-reads such a text — and others which are no less evocative, especially in the third manuscript, concerning the historico-social nature of the human senses, the dialectic of labour and need, the essential corruption of the personality by money, its radical emancipation through the abolition of private property, etc., one cannot avoid being assailed by a series of fundamentally important questions, first and foremost this one: how is it that such clear, and — on the surface — such categorical suggestions respecting the path to be pursued in order to make psychology a ‘genuine, comprehensive and real science’, have not so far brought about a decisive mutation in the development of psychology, in constituting a scientific theory of personality? No doubt one can see these texts, as well as others belonging to the works of Marx’s youth, quoted regularly with commentaries which are full of promise; no doubt even a few current research trends like the one characterized in France by I. Meyerson’s work use certain suggestions from the 1844 Manuscripts to good advantage when they analyze the historical nature and the objectification of the psychic functions of man in his works — and this does provide idea of what Marx’s analyses may bring to psychology if take seriously. But it is impossible not to see that, on the basis of what clearly constitutes the central element in the  1844 Manuscripts, like the other texts of this period, the theory of human       alienation — i.e., to restrict ourselves to a brief definition here, the loss of man’s being which has become an estranged power in the world of private property communism meaning the elimination of this alienation — psychology has so far created nothing worthy of note. How can we account for this surprising disability? The problem immediately gives rise to a second one: how does it come about that Marx himself, it appears, did not undertake this project of a ‘real psychology’ in his mature works? Ought one to believe that he did not have the time to elaborate this psychology just as he did not have time to give a systematic exposition of his dialectical method? Or, on the contrary, ought one to believe that, in his maturity, acknowledging it as mistaken, he knowingly abandoned a project of his youth? In a word, what is the connection between Marxism and the psychology of personality?

 The Marxist Conception of Man

One can see that this problem is quite different from a narrow, specialized issue; still much too little studied, in my opinion, it is a fundamental aspect of a central theoretical and historical problem faced by all those who reflect on the significance of Marxism: the problem of by relations which exist within it between its humanist content and its scientific character, i.e. between the youthful philosophico-humanist works and the mature scientific works. In the prolific growth of arguments and answers put forward in recent years, a deep opposition between two tendencies of interpretation has stood out which, extremely schematically, might be characterized like this: for one Marxism is essentially defined as a humanism, i.e. as a philosophy of the progressive realization of the ‘whole man’ throughout history — but which, to justify itself, tends to  move backward the time in Marx’s and Engels’ intellectual development when their basic theory may be considered to have been constituted and at the same time to reduce the significance of the deep-seated changes which it underwent between 1844 and 1847, to reincorporate the youthful phiosophico-humanist ideas as they are, unchanged, into the mature scientific conceptions, which then inevitably appears to diminish their theoretical rigor and to reduce historical materialism to the level of an anthropology which has scarcely broken with speculative illusions. For the other, on the contrary, Marxism is essentially deformed as a science, which  therefore prevents the preceding deformation but which then tends to transform the theoretical revolution characterized by the Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology into a break (coupure), and purely and simply to reject the content of the works preceding this period as well as the very concept of a Marxist theoretical humanism as being external  to Marxism, which comes down to making a restrictive reading of the mature works and, by denying any direct anthropological significance to historical materialism, to reducing the content of Marxist philosophy to the theory of knowledge.

It is exceedingly obvious that this primordial question of the relations between humanist content and scientific rigor within Marxism has decisive effect -- our problem of the relation between psychological science and the Marxist conception of man and, at the same time, one can see the unavoidable dilemma we are in, in so far as we let ourselves led by the logic of these two opposed interpretations.

1) Philosophical humanism, theoretical anti-humanism

 According to the first interpretation the conception of psychology defined in 1844, which is an integral part of philosophico-humanist themes and the theme of human alienation in particular, is regarded as the correct outline of a psychology befitting Marxism. One then attributes the fact that Marx himself did not develop this psychology in his late writings to external circumstances, and the persistence of such a lacuna up to our own day to dogmatic deformation. But one maintains that the ‘1844 psychology’ is the key to all enrichment and in fact to every correct reading of the Marxist classics. Thus the theory impoverishment in Capital is presented as the detailed economic development of the theme of alienation which is still there and of the analyses in the third 1844 Manuscript concerning human ‘wealth’ and ‘poverty’, being and possession, etc. One states as a fundamental principle that for Marxism man is not reducible to the relations of production but is always defined by free-choice and the creative project.   One maintains that to proceed in this direction it would be necessary to develop a whole Marxist theory of subjectivity and that in failing to do so Marxism is mutilated. In a word, one says that Marxism and psychology are articulated in the philosophico-humanist themes in the works of the Young Marx, especially the 1844 Manuscripts, and in the mature texts re-read in their light.

Such an interpretation may be alluring. It will be seen further on that it is not without some relation to reality. Yet it must be clearly said that it is unacceptable. It is unacceptable in the first place because, generally speaking, it is based on a mistaken view of the development of Marx’s ideas, an underestimation of the basic changes which they underwent in 1845-46 in an incredible mixture of youthful texts still imbued with speculative illusions and mature texts having reached complete scientific rigour. When, in the 1888 Foreword to Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels describes the Theses on Feuerbach, written in the Spring of 1845, as ‘the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook,' he establishes a corner-stone of all serious historical and theoretical interpretation of Marx’s thought in a way which, later studies have merely confirmed. Everyone who fails to recognize it is led to deviate from Marxism. 

From our present point of view it is also unacceptable for a more immediate and more decisive reason: this is that precisely from 1845-46 the theory of alienation as one finds it in the 1844 Manuscripts had unquestionably been surpassed by Marx and Engels themselves, and must therefore be considered to be pre-Marxist. Indeed, while it often makes it possible to describe very evocatively a number of characteristic phenomena and aspects of life experienced in bourgeois society and though it is linked, among other things, to a fundamental critique of private property and the communist outlook is very important, none the less, from a philosophical point of view this theory is based on the speculative conception of a human view still conceived in the form of ‘species man’, an abstract of which historical development and social relations are their reflective manifestation, and, correlatively, on the failure to recognize he basic principles of historical science (in particular, the determination of the form of social relations by the nature of the productive forces) and fundamental concepts in scientific economy (value, labour-power, surplus-value, etc.). Although they mark an important stage in the change from the old, humanist speculative point of view to the new, historical and economic, scientific point of view, a large part of the analysis in the 1844 Manuscripts is still upside-down, has still not been set right side up in a materialist manner.

Through estranged, alienated labour, then, the worker produces the relationship to this labour of a man alien to labour and standing outside it. The relationship of the worker to labour creates the relation to it of the capitalist (or whatever one chooses to call the master of labour). Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary consequence, of alienated labour, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself.

Private property thus results by analysis from the concept of alienated labour, i.e. of alienated man, of estranged labour, of estranged life, of estranged man. 

True, it is as a result of the movement of private property that we have obtained the concept of alienated labour (of alienated life) in political economy. But analysis of this concept shows that though private property appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labour, it is rather its consequence, just as the gods are originally not the cause but the effect of man’s intellectual confusion. Later this relationship becomes reciprocal.

And further:

How, we now ask, does man come to alienate, to estrange, his labour? How is this estrangement rooted in the nature of human development? We have already gone a long way to the solution of this problem by transforming the question of the origin of private property into the question of the relation of alienated labour to the course of humanity’s development.

Thus the 1844 Manuscripts assert a circularity between private property and alienated labour, between social relations and the human essence, but in this circularity the fundamental moment is that of the "human essence" . The essence of the historical process is man still conceived abstractly and its phenomena is in the economic categories: in spite of the materialist wrapping which the adoption of the viewpoint of human labour now represents, we are still in ideological speculation. In other words, while it is quite true that the 1844 Manuscript are situated at the turning-point between political economy and philosophy this is so only in the sense that the (speculative) ‘philosophical’ theory alienation still stands instead of real economic explanation of capitalist exploitation: as it is, it does not lead to it, therefore, but rather conceals the approach to it. This is why it is impossible to that hold that in 1844 Marx was sketching out from the point of view of lived experience the analysis which he then carries to the stage of scientific completion on the economic terrain: in fact, by its very nature, which is still speculative in essence, the ‘preliminary outline’ in 1844 was scientifically incompletable as such and, in the sense that they show how, far from it being an abstract alienation of man which produces forms of capitalist exploitation, it is capitalist exploitation which produces concrete forms of alienation, the analyses in the mature works are not the completion but rather the transmutation of the theory of alienation. This reversal is clearly indicated for the first time in the Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology which, contrary to Feuerbach and also to the former ‘philosophical conscience’ of Marx and Engels themselves, manifestly show that it is not a phenomenology of the human essence which makes clear understanding of social relations possible, but, on the contrary, it is the scientific investigation of social relations which makes possible an understanding of what up to that point was mistaken for the human essence. It is at this precise point that, in Engels’ expression, the ‘new conception of the world’ is really born. 

But all psychological analysis carried out directly at the level of human individuals is thereby invalidated from the scientific point of view, since the nature of the individual for mature Marxism is not originally to bear the human essence in himself but to find it outside himself in social relations. Consequently, the search for concrete man on the basis of the 1844 Manuscripts can never really succeed in producing truly scientific knowledge; it is merely the last avatar of speculative psychology, which thinks it has made a discovery when it has simply formulated an empirical observation in previous philosophical concepts. One can therefore understand why Marx abandoned it and why it has always remained a barren utopia: the ‘psychology’ of 1844 is an illusory route to the human person because it is a route to an illusory conception of this personality. In this sense, the ‘wealth’ of the 1844 analyses which literally makes brilliant developments possible, is fundamentally misleading: it is a theoretical "will-o’-the-wisp". This is what makes it possible to assert that the 1844 Manuscripts  or the works of this period — do not constitute the articulation between psychology and Marxism which we were looking for. In actual fact it is not a matter of an articulation here but of a soft point in the theory of the Young Marx, a soft point which betrayed the immaturity of his conception of society. Nothing that one had imagined it possible to construct here would stand up: every theory of the ‘person’ or of ‘subjectivity’ instituted in this way would fall back beyond Marxism into abstract humanism, Into ideology.

It appears then that one is led directly to the extremity of the other interpretation. This consists in maintaining that, from the Marxist point of view, not only the ‘1844 psychology’ but, in the current sense of the word psychology - i.e. in the apparently obvious sense in which its object is man, the human subject - all psychology is intrinsically ideological for the same reason that all humanism is speculative. Indeed, by way of the break of the Theses on Feuerbach and writing-off the after-effects which are inevitable for a time after such a radical break, it is said that Marx entirely displaced the terrain of his analysis from the human essence to social relations. But this displacement, which is the imperative condition of the change to historical-materialism, scientific economy and scientific socialism, involves the unqualified abandonment of the former concepts which are wholly contaminated by the speculative attitude. And this is how, if not strictly the word, at least the concept and the theory of alienation irrevocably disappear. More fundamentally still, according to this interpretation, it is the very concept of man which no longer finds a place in mature Marxism. Not that Marxism ‘overlooks’ the existence and role of ‘real’, ‘concrete’ men of course. But ‘not overlooking’ real men does not at all necessarily imply that one accepts the concept of man as a scientific concept — any more than the economist does not overlook real misery because he considers that by referring to the ‘poor’ one still does not possess, a scientific concept. If it is true, as the 6th Thesis on Feuerbach states, that the ‘human essence’ does not lie in the individual but in the ensemble of social relations, a science which hopes to grasp human individuals for its object clearly appears to be a science without an essence, a false science. It is maintained, therefore, that individuals can only intervene in Marxist theory in so far as they personify social relations, hence, in so far as they are not psychological subjects. This is What Marx seems to say in the Preface to the First Edition of Capital: ‘But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the Personification of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests’ Of course, every real individual is not absorbed in social relations: as a living organism he is an object of the biological sciences; as an animal becomes human he is an object psychoanalysis. But one cannot confuse these sciences with that of psychology. Better: if one really wishes to rid psychoanalysis of a parasitic ideology, and not to begin by reducing it to a variant of psychology, is not its most valuable theoretical contribution to confirm from quite a different angle, that the so-called ‘human subject’ is only the misleading appearance of relations — in this case, the relations between nature and culture which haunt the unconscious and its mechanisms? Let us summarize this interpretation as a whole: albeit unconsciously, all psychology, even the most positivist looking, rests on a philosophical belief, belief in man, in the theoretical validity of the concept of man. Marx’s fundamental discovery is that what exists theoretically speaking, is not man but social relations; there is human meaning of historical progress but a succession of social formations; no realization of the human essence but resolution of contradictions between social structures. This being so it can clearly have no part in the articulation between Marxism and psychology. The soft point which existed in the theory of 1844 has been wholly filled in by historical materialism, by political economy. There is nothing more to add.

Such an interpretation is at first surprising, even shocking. In contrast to the facile attractions of the preceding interpretation it is, none the less, impressive as a valuable stimulus to fundamental reflection. It does indeed express the truth on some essential points. However, taken as a whole it does not appear to me to be any more acceptable than the preceding one, in the first place because in my opinion it is vitiated from end to end by a mistaken conception of the relation between the youthful and the mature works in Marxism — therefore, also, of the true meaning of the mature works. This conception is particularly evident in the concept of break (coupure): a radical change of problematic having occurred between the 1844 Manuscripts and the mature works, nothing really carried over — except by way of temporary after-effects — from one side of the break to the other. Is not this concept of break, with its underlying mathematical meaning, much too simple and too un dialectical to express, in all its complexity, a revolution in the history of ideas, as in history tout court? For what must be clearly understood is not only the rupture in continuity which the theoretical restructuration involved in every great discovery introduces, but also, at the same time, the unity of the process, without which, moreover, the discovery would be well an truly miraculous. In point of fact, in the problem of the development of Marxist thought usage of the inadequate concept of break clearly  appears to signify the polemical denial of the (untenable) point of view of overwhelming  continuity rather than to ensure really scientifically surpassing it, which would preclude all one-sided simplification and every tendency to violate (forcer) texts and ideas. 

It would most certainly be too little to say that there is a scientific advance from the 1844 Manuscripts to the mature Marxist works. This advance was indicated by a rupture — or better, by ruptures — in continuity, the most decisive taking place in 1845-46. This is incontrovertible. But, at the same time, it is unquestionable that, like a sort of process of theoretical orthogenesis, the succession of these ruptures in continuity marks out a continuous effort to master an unchanged domain of the real with transformed concepts. This is how Marx and Engels always represented their own development and, while their point of view is not to be treated with fetishistic deference, it would be even more irrational to disregard it. Thus, in the 1859 Preface, some fifteen years removed, Marx considers the work undertaken by Engels and himself in 1845, work which was to culminate in The German Ideology, as an attempt ‘to settle accounts with our former philosophical conscience'. Hence a rupture. But in the same text Marx recalls, as a notable step in his discovery of historical materialism, the fact that as early as 1843, in the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, he had arrived at the idea that legal relations and the form of the state can only be explained by setting out from ‘civil society’, the anatomy of which must be sought in political economy. Hence continuity in the progression of his thought. Much later still, in a letter to Engels of April 24 1867, i.e. nearly a quarter of a century removed, after having again taken up The Holy Family, which dates from 1844, he wrote, ‘I was pleasantly surprised to find that we do not need to be ashamed of this work, although the cult of Feuerbach produces a very humorous effect upon one now ‘. This is not the language of the break. And it is what Lenin, writing opposite a passage in the book in which Marx criticizes Proudhon, emphasized in his notes on The Holy Family: ‘This passage ... shows how Marx approached the basic idea of his entire “system”, sit venia verbo,’ namely the concept of the social relations of production’.

There is more. Throughout his life Marx never stopped taking up again and reincorporating the pre-1845 materials, particularly the 1844 manuscripts by reworking them ‘If one judges by the numerous Passages marked by a vertical line, there is no doubt that he referred to them (1844 Manuscripts]. Indeed, he was in the habit of proceeding in this way when he was using ideas or passages from the manuscripts he kept in his drawers.”

Moreover, these reworkings are easy to detect. Thus, one of the famous passages in the 1844 Manuscripts, the analysis of the power of money starting with a passage from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens taken up again in The German Ideology, then ten years later in the first version of the Contribution, then ten years later still in Capital. Another example: in Capital Marx again takes up the analysis of the contradiction within bourgeois society and in the very soul of the capitalist between the passion for accumulation and the desire for enjoyment.” Again, in the same’ way, he comes back several times in Capital to the comparison already developed in 1844 between economic and religious alienation.’ One could easily multiply the examples. It is, as it were, the behavior of a painter who turns back to subjects in his mature years which he has dealt with in his youth because he has never stopped dreaming about them. Naturally, reading the mature version of these analyses, one cannot fail to say to oneself: how they have changed! — but this is clearly to acknowledge the fact that one has recognized them.

Let us get nearer to the root of the problem:

— when, after the turning point of 1845-46, in his vitally important letter to Annenkov, dated December 28 1846, a letter which constitutes one of the best systematic expositions of the principles of historical materialism and the résumé of the whole of The German Ideology, Marx writes that ‘the social history of men is never anything but The history of their individual development ‘,

— when, in full maturity in 1857-58, he formulates the conclusion that the ‘most extreme form of alienation’ constituted by the relation between wage-labour and capital

 already contains in itself, in a still only inverted form, turned on its head, the dissolution of all limited presuppositions of production, and moreover creates and produces the unconditional presuppositions of production, and therewith the full material conditions for the total, universal development of the productive forces of the individual,

— when, in Capital itself, i.e. at a time when he has his completed scientific work before him and when, according to the anti-humanist interpretation, he should have been poles apart from the humanism of 1844 and the theory of alienation, we read, for example, that ‘the capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labor from all property in the means by which they can realize their labour, but also that the development of large-scale industry imposes t e necessity of recognizing, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes and,

compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of today ... by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers,

— when he concludes that communism will begin with ‘that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom’,

— when, in an article summarizing the whole of Capital, Engels writes that

Marx sharply stresses the bad sides of capitalist production but with equal emphasis clearly proves that this social form was necessary to develop the productive forces of society to a level which will make possible an equal development worthy of human beings for all members of society,

 — or when, finally, in Theories of Surplus- Value, Marx himself does not hesitate to say that

although at first the development of the capacities of the human species takes place at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even classes, in the end it breaks through this contradiction and coincides with the development of the individual; the higher development of individuality is thus only achieved by a historical process during which individuals are sacrificed,

 — when one re-reads these texts, and many similar ones which I will refer to later, can one really think that the humanist preoccupations of the 1844 Manuscripts have been surpassed without anything having passed into mature Marxism? And how must such texts be read in order not to see at the core of the most rigorous theory, in a way which will have to be elucidated, men and the contradictory path of their historical flowering?

I think enough has been said to make evident the necessity for a systematic and rigorous re-examination of what becomes of the Problematic of man as a whole within mature Marxism, from The German Ideology to Capital — a re-examination on which both the understanding of Marxism itself and the true grasp of its articulation with the theory of personality depend. In its scholarly form such a re- examination would require volumes. The pages which follow will present a summary. 

The Conception of Man