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Peter Binns

Early Writings

(May 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.78, May 1975, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Marx and Engels, Collected Works
Lawrence and Wishart, 1975, £3 per volume
Vol.1: Karl Marx 1835-43
Vol 2: Frederick Engels 1838-42

Karl Marx: Early Writings
Penguin Books, 1975, £1.

THE ‘EARLY Marx’ has come in for a lot of attention since the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts were first published in 1932. What kind of an animal was he? And was the ‘Early Engels’ of the same or of a different species? Why a special category anyway – no one talks about the ‘Early Lenin’? Is this difference justifiable?

Now for the first time the English-speaking reader can judge for himself. These works reveal in full detail the development of Marx and Engels from their late teens to their mid-twenties. And in neither case do they reveal sudden blinding revelations of the truth of revolutionary scientific socialism. On the contrary it happened slowly and unevenly. Engels, the self-taught intellectual and aesthete, was sent to England by his father – a conservative industrialist, who feared the radical company that young Frederick was keeping at home. England, it was hoped, would bring him out of the clouds and back to earth again. It awakened him instead to the English proletariat.

For Engels direct acquaintance with the proletariat overtook his involvement with literature, religion and above all philosophy. For Marx it was the other way about. His involvements with religion, Hegel’s idealism and Feuerbach’s materialism were ended before he became a revolutionary socialist. Intellectually he had already settled accounts with them in a series of savage critiques. He never needed to re-open these questions again, unlike Engels who devoted later works of dubious merit like Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature to them.

So inevitably it is the early works of Marx which reveal most clearly the changes in the attempt to understand the world as a whole. And from the first volume of the Collected Works we can already see how early is his rejection of Hegel’s metaphysics. His Doctoral Dissertation, written in 1840-41, shows for instance unequivocal support for the Greek philosopher Epicurus‘ version of materialism. It also shows that already his differences with Hegel were not with one or another part of his system, (as they were for the ‘left’ Hegelians who criticised Hegel’s accommodation to the Prussian state, but who praised his method) but with the system as a whole. ‘In relation to Hegel,’ Marx argues, ‘it is mere ignorance on the part of his pupils, when they explain one or the other determination of his system by his desire for accommodation and the like... this apparent accommodation has its deepest roots in an inadequacy or an inadequate formulation of his principle itself (Collected Works, Vol.1, p. 84).

By 1841 Marx had already developed a highly sophisticated form of materialism, basing himself, as we have mentioned, on Epicurus. Yet it was that it was just a form. It was not concretised in any substantial way. Crucially it lacked any social or historical dimension. All this he was to provide in good measure in time, but before that happened Marx devoted himself to an all-out attack on Hegelianism. During 1842 and 1843 everything was subordinated to this task. The fruits appeared in the Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State, On the Jewish Question, and the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.

For Hegel the material world is produced by an all-pervading spiritual force, and the point of Marx’s polemics is not just to show that this is false, but also to demonstrate that it is the other way about. Hegel has got things the wrong way round. Before we can proceed they must be ‘turned right side up again’ (as Marx put it later in Capital). But he does not leave things here. That Hegel sees things upside down is due to the fact that the world he is reflecting is itself topsy turvy:

‘Hegel should not be blamed for describing the essence of the state as it is, but for identifying what is with the essence of the State.’ (Early Writings, p.149, Marx’s emphasis).

So the solution to the problems of German philosophy can only be found outside that philosophy:

‘the criticism of the speculative philosophy of law finds its progression not only within itself but in tasks which can only be solved in one way – through practice’ (Ibid., p.251, Marx’s emphasis).

It was this which led Marx to the proletariat:

‘So where is the positive possibility of German emancipation? This is our answer. In the formation of a class with radical claims, a class which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from – and thereby emancipating – all other spheres of society. This dissolution of society as a particular class is the proletariat.’ (Ibid., p.256, Marx’s emphasis).

In these works one can see many of Marx’s ideas in embryo. His materialism, his revolutionary approach to existing society, his understanding of the class nature of the state, his attachment to the proletariat as the only agent for bringing socialism, all these and many more. Enriched with the economic and historical dimensions that his later studies gave him, these insights became crucial elements of his mature thought.

Obviously some of these views became amended, but none of them very seriously. Perhaps the most important is that in Marx’s polemics against Hegel he sometimes ‘turns Hegel on his head’ too much. In later years he insisted on distinguishing between the real material pre-conditions for capitalist society, and the intrinsic logic of its development. (See for instance the remarks on the method of Political Economy in the Introduction to the Grundrisse). In these early works these are not separated but are collapsed into one. It is a pity that Colletti, the commentator of the Penguin edition, gives the impression that this is a good thing (see page 32).

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