Reason & Revolution. Part II, The Rise of Social Theory
Marx’s writings between 1844 and 1846 treat the form of labor in modern society as constituting the total ‘alienation’ of man. The employment of this category links Marx’s economic analysis with a basic category of the Hegelian philosophy. The social division of labor, Marx declares, is not carried out with any consideration for the talents of individuals and the interest of the whole, but rather takes place entirely according to the laws of capitalist commodity production. Under these laws, the product of labor, the commodity, seems to determine the nature and end of human activity. In other words, the materials that should serve life come to rule over its content and goal, and the consciousness of man is completely made victim to the relationships of material production.
The materialistic proposition that is the starting point of Marx’s theory thus states, first, an historical fact, exposing the materialistic character of the prevailing social order in which an uncontrolled economy legislates over all human relations. At the same time, Marx’s proposition is a critical one, implying that the prevailing relation between consciousness and social existence is a false one that must be overcome before the true relation can come to light. The truth of the materialist thesis is thus to be fulfilled in its negation.
Marx emphasizes time and again that his materialistic starting point is forced upon him by the materialistic quality of the society he analyzes. He states that he begins with a ‘fact,’ an ‘economic fact’ recognized even by classical political economy. As modern society runs its course, ‘the worker becomes the poorer the more wealth he produces and the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes a cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. Hand in hand with the exploitation (Verwertung) of the objective world goes, the depreciation of the human world’. Classical political economy (Marx quotes Adam Smith and J. B. Say) admits that even great social wealth means nothing but ‘stationary poverty’ for the worker. These economists had shown that poverty is not at all the result of adverse external circumstance, but of the prevailing mode of labor itself. ‘In the progressing condition of society the destruction and impoverishment of the worker is the product of his own labor and of the wealth he has himself produced. Misery thus springs from the nature of the prevailing mode of labor’ and is rooted in the very essence of modern society.
What significance does this mode of labor have as far as the development of man is concerned? With this question, the Marxian theory leaves the plane of political economy. The totality of economic relations, laws, and institutions may not be treated simply as an isolated objective cluster of facts, but as making up a historical form within which men carry on their lives. Freed from the limitations of a specialized science, the economic categories are seen to be determining factors for human existence (Daseinsformen, Existenzbestimmungen), even if they denote objective economic facts (as in the case of commodity, value, ground rent). Far from being a mere economic activity (Erwerbstätigkeit), labor is the ‘existential activity’ of man, his ‘free, conscious activity’ — not a means for maintaining his life (Lebensmittel) but for developing his ‘universal nature’. The new categories will evaluate the economic reality with a view to what it has made of man, of his faculties, powers, and needs.
Marx summarizes these human qualities when he speaks of the ‘universal essence of man’; his examination of the economy is specifically carried on with the question in mind whether that economy realizes man’s Gattungswesen (universelles Wesen).
These terms point back to Feuerbach and to Hegel. Man’s very nature lies in his universality. His intellectual. and physical faculties can be fulfilled only if all men exist as men, in the developed wealth of their human resources. Man is free only if all men are free and exist as ‘universal beings’. When this condition is attained, life will be shaped by the potentialities of the genus, Man, which embraces the potentialities of all the individuals that comprise it. The emphasis on this universality brings nature as well into the self-development of mankind. Man is free if ‘nature is his work and his reality,’ so that he ‘recognizes himself in a world he has himself made’.
All this has an obvious resemblance to Hegel’s idea of reason. Marx even goes so far as to describe the self-realization of man in terms of the unity between thought and being. The whole problem is, however, no longer a philosophical one, for the self-realization of man now requires the abolition of the prevailing mode of labor, and philosophy cannot deliver this result. The critique does begin in philosophic terms, because the enslavement of labor and its liberation are alike conditions that go beyond the framework of traditional political economy and affect the very foundations of human existence (which are the proper domain of philosophy), but Marx departs from the philosophical terminology as soon as he has elaborated his own theory. The critical, transcendental character of the economic categories, hitherto expressed by philosophical concepts, later, in his Capital, is demonstrated by the economic categories themselves.
Marx explains the alienation of labor as exemplified in, first, the relation of the worker to the product of his labor and, second, the relation of the worker to his own activity. The worker in capitalist society produces commodities. Large-scale commodity production requires capital, large aggregations of wealth used exclusively to promote commodity production. The commodities are produced by independent private entrepreneurs for purposes of profitable sale. The worker labors for the capitalist, to whom he surrenders, through the wage contract, the product of his labor. Capital is power to dispose over the products of labor. The more the worker produces, the greater the power of capital becomes and the smaller the worker’s own means for appropriating his products. Labor thus becomes the victim of a power it has itself created.
Marx summarizes this process as follows: ‘The object which labor produces, its product, is encountered as an alien entity, a force that has become independent of its producer. The realization of labor is its objectification. Under the prevailing economic conditions, this realization of labor appears as its opposite, the negation [Entwirklichung] of the laborer. Objectification appears as loss of and enslavement by the object, and appropriation as alienation and expropriation’. Once turned to the laws of capitalist commodity production, labor is inevitably impoverished. For, ‘the more the worker toils, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects he produces to oppose him, and the poorer lie himself becomes ..’. Marx shows this mechanism at work in the movement of wages. The laws of commodity production, without any external aids, maintain wages at the level of stationary poverty.
[As a result,] the realization of labor appears as negation to such an extent that the worker is negated to the point of starvation. The objectification appears as a loss of the objects to such an extent that the worker is deprived of the most necessary objects of life and labor. Moreover, labor itself becomes an object of which he can make himself master only by the greatest effort and with incalculable interruptions. Appropriation of the object appears as alienation to such an extent that the more objects the worker produces the less he possesses and the more he comes under the sway of his product, of capital.
The worker alienated from his product is at the same time alienated from himself. His labor itself becomes no longer his own, and the fact that it becomes the property of another bespeaks an expropriation that touches the very essence of man. Labor in its true form is a medium for man’s true self-fulfillment, for the full development of his potentialities; the conscious utilization of the forces of nature should take place for his satisfaction and enjoyment. In its current form, however, it cripples all human faculties and enjoins satisfaction. The worker ‘does not affirm but contradicts his essence’. ‘Instead of developing his free physical and mental energies, he mortifies his body and ruins his mind. He therefore first feels he is with himself when he is free from work and apart from himself when he is at work. He is at home when he does not work and not at home when he does. His working is, therefore, not done willingly but under compulsion. It is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for the satisfaction of wants outside of it’.
In consequence, ‘Man [the worker] feels himself acting freely only in his animal functions like eating, drinking and begetting ... whereas in his human functions he is nothing but an animal. The animal becomes the human and the human the animal’. This holds alike for the worker (the expropriated producer), and for him who buys his labor. The process of alienation affects all strata of society, distorting even the ‘natural’ functions of man. The senses, the primary sources of freedom and happiness according to Feuerbach, are reduced to one ‘sense of possessing’. They view their object only as something that can or cannot be appropriated. Even pleasure and enjoyment change from conditions under which men freely develop their ‘universal nature’ into modes of ‘egoistic’ possession and acquisition.
Marx’s analysis of labor under capitalism is thus quite deep seated, going further than the structure of economic relationships to the actual human content. Relations such as those between capital and labor, capital and commodity, labor and commodity, and those between commodities are understood as human relations, relations in man’s social existence. Even the institution of private property appears as ‘the product, result and inevitable consequence of the alienated mode of labor,’ and derives from the mechanisms of the social mode of production. The alienation of labor leads to the division of labor so characteristic of all forms of class society: ‘Each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape a division that is not overcome when the abstract freedom of the individual is proclaimed in bourgeois society. Labor separated from its object is, in the last analysis, an ‘alienation of man from man’; the individuals are isolated from and set against each other. They are linked in the commodities they exchange rather than in their persons. Man’s alienation from himself is simultaneously an estrangement from his fellow men.
Marx’s early writings are the first explicit statement of the process of reification (Verdinglichung) through which capitalist society makes all personal relations between men take the form of objective relations between things. Marx expounds this process in his Capital as ‘the Fetishism of Commodities’. The system of capitalism relates men to each other through the commodities they exchange. The social status of individuals, their standard of living, the satisfaction of their needs, their freedom, and their power are all determined by the value of their commodities. The capacities and needs of the individual have no part in the evaluation. Even man’s most human attributes become a function of money, the general substitute for commodities. Individuals participate in the social process as owners of commodities only. Their mutual relations are those of their commodities. Capitalist commodity production has this mystifying result, that it transforms the social relations of individuals into ‘qualities of ... things themselves [commodities] and still more pronouncedly transforms the interrelations of production themselves into a thing [money]’. The mystifying result arises from the specific mode of labor in commodity production, with its separate individuals working independently of each other, and fulfilling their own needs only through those of the market:
The fetishism of commodities has its origin ... in the peculiar social character of the labor that produces them.
As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labor of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum-total of the labor of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labor of society [gesellschaftliche Gesamtarbeit]. Since the producers do not come into contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labor does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labor of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labor of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labor of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons [sachliche Verhältnisse von Personen] and social relations between things.
What does this reification accomplish? It sets forth the actual social relations among men as a totality of objective relations, thereby concealing their origin, their mechanisms of perpetuation, and the possibility of their transformation. Above all, it conceals their human core and content. If wages, as the reification process would indicate, express the value of labor, exploitation is at best a subjective and personal judgment. If capital were nothing other than an aggregate of wealth employed in commodity production, then capital would appear to be the cumulative result of productive skill and diligence. If the creation of profits were the peculiar quality of utilized capital, such profits might represent a reward for the work of the entrepreneur. The relation between capital and labor on this basis would involve neither iniquity nor oppression; it would rather be a purely objective, material relationship, and economic theory would be a specialized science like any other. The laws of supply and demand, the fixing of value and prices, the business cycles, and so on, would be amenable to study as objective laws and facts, regardless of their effect on human existence. The economic process of society would be a natural process, and man, with all his needs and desires, would play in it the role of an objective mathematical quantum rather than that of a conscious subject.
Marxian theory rejects such a science of economics and sets in its place the interpretation that economic relations existential relations between men. It does this not by virtue of any humanitarian feeling but by virtue of the actual content of the economy itself. Economic relations only seem to be objective because of the character of commodity production. As soon as one delves beneath this mode of production, and analyzes its origin, one can see that its natural objectivity is mere semblance while in reality it is a specific historical form of existence that man has given himself. Moreover, once this content comes to the fore, economic theory would turn into a critical theory. ‘When one speaks of private property one thinks he is dealing with something outside of man. When one speaks of labor, one has to do immediately with man himself. The new formulation of the question already involves its solution’. As soon as their mystifying character is uncovered, economic conditions appear as the complete negation of humanity. The mode of labor perverts all human faculties, accumulation of wealth intensifies poverty, and technological progress leads to ‘the rule of dead matter over the human world’. Objective facts come alive and enter an indictment of society. Economic realities exhibit their own inherent negativity.
We are here touching upon the origins of the Marxian dialectic. For Marx, as for Hegel, the dialectic takes note of the fact that the negation inherent in reality is ‘the moving and creative principle’. The dialectic is the ‘dialectic of negativity’. Every fact is more than a mere fact; it is a negation and restriction of real possibilities. Wage labor is a fact, but at the same time it is a restraint on free work that might satisfy human needs. Private property is a fact, but at the same time it is a negation of man’s collective appropriation of nature.
Man’s social practice embodies the negativity as well as its overcoming. The negativity of capitalist society lies in its alienation of labor the negation of this negativity will come with the abolition of alienated labor. Alienation has taken its most universal form in the institution of private property; amends will be made with the abolition of private property. It is of the utmost importance to note that Marx views the abolition of private property entirely as a means for the abolition of ‘alienated labor’ and not as an end in itself. The socialization of the means of production is as such merely an economic fact, just like any other economic institution. Its claim to be the beginning of a new social order depends on what man does with the socialized means of production. If these are not utilized for the development and gratification of the free individual, they will amount simply to a new form for subjugating individuals to a hypostatized universality. The abolition of private property inaugurates an essentially new social system only if free individuals, and not ‘the society,’ become masters of the socialized means of production. Marx expressly warns against such another ‘reification’ of society: ‘One must above all avoid setting “the society” up again as an abstraction opposed to the individual. The individual is the social entity [das gesellschaftliche Wesen]. The expression of his entity ... is therefore an expression and verification of the life of society’.
The true history of mankind will be, in the strict sense, the history of free individuals, so that the interest of the whole will be woven into the individual existence of each. In all prior forms of society, the interest of the whole lay in separate social and political institutions, which represented the right of society as against the right of the individual. The abolition of private property will do away with all this once and for all, for it will mark ‘man’s return from family, religion, state, etc., to his human, that is, social existence’.
It is, then, the free individuals, and not a new system of production, that exemplify the fact that the particular and the common interest have been merged. The individual is the goal. This ‘individualistic’ trend is fundamental as an interest of the Marxian theory. We have shown the role of the universal in the traditional theories, placing stress on the fact that human fulfillment, what we have called ‘the truth’ exemplified, could only be conceived in terms of the abstract universal concept so long as society retained the form it had. Shot through with a conflict at every hand among individual interests, the concrete conditions of social life made a mockery of ‘the universal essence’ of man and nature. And since the prevailing social realities contradicted that essence, and hence contradicted ‘the truth,’ the latter had no refuge save the mind, where it was hypostatized as an abstract universal.
Marx explains how this state of affairs came about, showing its origin in the division of labor of class society, and particularly in the divorce that was entailed between the intellectual and material forces of production.
The forces of production, the state of society, and consciousness, can and must come into contradiction with one another, because the division of labor implies the possibility, nay the fact that intellectual and material activity — enjoyment and labor, production and consumption — devolve on different individuals ... The division of labor ... manifests itself also in the ruling class as the division of mental and material labor, so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class ... while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves ... It is self-evident that phantoms like ‘the Higher Being,’ ‘Notion’ ... are merely the idealistic, spiritual expression, the conception apparently of the isolated individual, the image of very empirical fetters and limitations, within which the mode of production of life, and the form of intercourse coupled with it, move.
Just as materially the reproduction of the social whole was the result of blind forces over which man’s conscious powers exercised no guidance, so mentally, the universal came forth as a reality that was independent and creative. The groups governing society were compelled to hide the fact that their interests were private by cloaking them in the ‘dignity of the universal’. ‘Each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society ... It will give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones’. The claim of universality for the ideas of a ruling class is thus part of the mechanisms of class rule, and the critique of class society will also destroy its philosophical claims.
The universal concepts employed are at first those hypostatizing desired forms of human existence — concepts like reason, freedom, justice, and virtue, and also state, society, democracy. All of these envisage that man’s universal essence is materialized either within the prevailing social conditions or beyond them in a supra-historical realm. Marx also points to the fact that such concepts become increasingly universal in scope with the advance of the society. The ideas of honor, loyalty, and so on, which characterized medieval times and which were the dominant ideas of the aristocracy, were far more restricted in appeal and applied to fewer persons than the ideas of freedom, equality, and justice, of the bourgeoisie, which reflect the more far-reaching base of that class. The development of dominant ideas thus keeps step with and mirrors an increasing social and economic integration. ‘The most general abstractions commonly arise only where there is the highest concrete development, where one feature seems to be jointly possessed by many, and to be common to all. Then it cannot be thought of any longer in one particular form’. The more society advances, the more do ‘abstract ideas hold sway, that is, ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality’.
This process, however, turns into its opposite as soon as classes are abolished and the interest of the whole is fulfilled in the existence of every individual, for then ‘It is no longer necessary to represent a particular interest as general or “the general interest” as ruling’. The individual becomes the actual subject of history, in such a way that he is himself the universal and manifests the ‘universal essence’ of man.
Communism, with its ‘positive abolition of private property,’ is thus of its very nature a new form of individualism, and not only a new and different economic system, but a different system of life. Communism is ‘the real appropriation [Aneignung] of the essence of man by and for man, therefore it is man’s complete conscious ... return to himself as a social ‘ that is, human being’. It is the ‘true solution of man’s conflict with nature and with man, of the strife between existence and essence, reification and self-determination, liberty and necessity, individual and genus’. The contradictions that lay beneath the philosophy of Hegel and all traditional philosophy will dissolve in this new form of society. For these are historical contradictions rooted in the antagonisms of class society. Philosophical ideas express material historical conditions, which cast off their philosophical form as soon as they are subjected to the scrutiny of critical theory and are seized by conscious social practice.
Hegel’s philosophy revolved about the universality of reason; it was a rational system with its every part (the subjective as well as the objective spheres) integrated into a comprehensive whole. Marx shows that capitalist society first put such a universality into practice. Capitalism developed the productive forces for the totality of a uniform social system. Universal commerce, universal competition, and the universal interdependence of labor were made to prevail and transformed men into ‘world-historical, empirically universal individuals’.
This universality, however, as we have explained, is a negative one, for the productive forces are used, as are the things man produces with them, in a way that makes them seem the products of an uncontrolled alien power. It is ‘an empirical fact that separate individuals have, with the broadening of their activity into world-historical activity, become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them ... a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market’. The distribution of supply under international commodity production is a blind and anarchic universal process, wherein the demand of the individual is satisfied only if he can meet the requirements of exchange. Marx calls this anarchic relation of supply to demand a ‘natural’ form of social integration, meaning that it seems to have the force of a natural law instead of operating, as it should, under the joint control of all men.
The realization of freedom and reason requires a reversal of this state of affairs. ‘Universal dependence, this natural form of the world-historical cooperation of individuals, will be transformed by this communist revolution into the control and conscious mastery of these powers, which, born of the action of men on one another, have till now overawed and governed men as powers completely alien to them’.
Moreover, since the state of affairs that has prevailed ‘till now’ is a universal negativity, affecting all spheres of life everywhere, its transformation requires a universal revolution, that is to say, a revolution that would reverse, first, the totality of prevailing conditions and, secondly, would replace this with a new universal order. The material elements of complete revolution must be present so that the convulsion grips not specific conditions in the existent society, but the very ‘production of life’ prevailing in it, the ‘total activity’ on which it has been based. This totalitarian character of the revolution is made necessary by the totalitarian character of the capitalist relations of production. ‘Modern universal intercourse can be controlled by individuals ... only when controlled by all’.
The revolutionary convulsion that ends the system of capitalist society sets free all the potentialities for general satisfaction that have developed in this system. Marx accordingly calls the communist revolution an act of ‘appropriation’ [Aneignung], meaning that with the abolition of private property men are to obtain true ownership over all those things that have hitherto remained estranged from them.
Appropriation is determined by the object to be appropriated, that is, by ‘the productive forces, which have been developed to a totality and which only exist within a universal intercourse. From this aspect alone, therefore, this appropriation must have a universal character ..’. The universality that exists in the present state of society will be transposed to the new social order, where, however, it will have a different character. The universal will no longer operate as a blind natural force once men have succeeded in subjecting the available productive forces ‘to the power of individuals united’. Man will then for the first time in history consciously treat ‘all natural premises as the creatures of men’. His struggle with nature will pursue ‘a general plan’ formulated by ‘freely combined individuals’.
The appropriation is also determined by the persons appropriating. The alienation of labor creates a society split into opposing classes. Any social scheme that effects a division of labor without taking account of the abilities and needs of individuals in assigning them their roles tends to shackle the activity of the individual to external economic forces. The mode of social production (the way in which the life of the whole is maintained) circumscribes the life of the individual and harnesses his entire existence to relations prescribed by the economy, without regard to his subjective abilities or wants. Commodity production under a system of free competition has aggravated this condition. The commodities allotted to the individual for the gratification of his needs were supposed to be the equivalent of his work. Equality seemed to be guaranteed, at least in this respect. The individual could not, however, choose his work. It was prescribed for him by his position in the social process of production, which was in turn forced upon him by the prevailing distribution of power and wealth.
The fact of classes contradicts freedom, or, rather, transforms it into an abstract idea. The class circumscribes the actual range of individual freedom within the general anarchy, the arena of free play still open to the individual. Each is free to the extent that his class is free, and the development of his individuality is confined to the limits of his class: he unfolds himself as a ‘class individual’.
The class is the actual social and economic unit, not the individual. It ‘achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, [and] become subsumed under it’. The existent form of society accomplishes a universal order only by negating the individual. The ‘personal individual’ becomes a ‘class individual,’ and his constituent properties become universal properties that he shares with all other members of his class. His existence is not his, but that of his class. We recall Hegel’s statement that the individual is the universal, that he acts historically not as a private person but as a citizen of his state. Marx understands this negation of the individual to be the historical product of class society, effectuated not by the state but by the ordering of labor.
The subsumption of individuals under classes is the same phenomenon as their subjection to the division of labor. By division of labor Marx here means the process of separating various economic activities into specialized and delimited fields: first, industry and commerce separated from agriculture; then industry separated from commerce; and finally the latter subdivided into different branches. This entire differentiation takes place under the requirements of commodity production in its capitalistic form, accelerated by the progress of technology. It is a blind and ‘natural’ process. The totality of labor required to perpetuate society appears as an a priori given body of work that is organized in a definite way. The specific division of labor that prevails seems an unalterable necessity that drags the individuals into its toils. Business becomes an objective entity that gives men a certain standard of living, a set of interests, and a range of possibilities that mark them off from men engaged in other businesses. The conditions of labor mold the individuals into groups or classes, and are class conditions converging upon the fundamental division into capital and wage labor.
The two fundamental classes, however, are not classes in the same sense. The proletariat is distinguished by the fact that, as a class, it signifies the negation of all classes. The interests of all other classes are essentially one-sided; the proletariat’s interest is essentially universal. The proletariat has neither property nor profit to defend. Its one concern, the abolition of the prevailing mode of labor, is the concern of society as a whole. This is expressed in the fact that the communist revolution, in contrast to all previous revolutions, can leave no social group in bondage because there is no class below the proletariat.
The universality of the proletariat is, again, a negative universality, indicating that the alienation of labor has intensified to the point of total self-destruction. The labor of the proletarian prevents any self-fulfillment; his work negates his entire existence. This utmost negativity, however, takes a positive turn. The very fact that he is deprived of all assets of the prevailing system sets him beyond this system. He is a member of the class ‘which is really rid of all the old world and at the same time stands pitted against it’. The ‘universal character’ of the proletariat is the final basis for the universal character of the communist revolution.
The proletariat is the negation not only of certain particular human potentialities, but also of man as such. All specific distinguishing marks by which men are differentiated lose their validity. Property, culture, religion, nationality, and so on, all things that might set one man off from another, make no such mark among proletarians. Each lives in society only as the bearer of labor power, land each is thus the equivalent of all others of his class. His concern to exist is not the concern of a given group, class, or nation, but is truly universal and ‘world historical’. ‘The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically ...’ The communist revolution, its movement, is therefore necessarily a world revolution.
The prevailing social relations that the revolution upsets are everywhere negative because they everywhere result from a negative ordering of the labor process that perpetuates them. The labor process itself is the life of the proletariat. Abolition of the negative ordering of labor, alienated labor as Marx terms it, is hence at the same time the abolition of the proletariat.
The abolition of the proletariat also amounts to the abolition of labor as such. Marx makes this an express formulation when he speaks of the achievement of revolution. Classes are to be abolished ‘by the abolition of private property and of labor itself’. Elsewhere, Marx says the same thing: ‘The communistic revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labor’. And again, ‘the question is not the liberation but the abolition of labor’. The question is not the liberation of labor because labor has already been made ‘free’; free labor is the achievement of capitalist society. Communism can cure the ‘ills’ of the bourgeois and the distress of the proletarian only ‘by removing their cause, namely, “labor.”’
These amazing formulations in Marx’s earliest writings all contain the Hegelian term Aufhebung, so that abolition also carries the meaning that a content is restored to its true form. Marx, however, envisioned the future mode of labor to be so different from the prevailing one that he hesitated to use the same term ‘labor’ to designate alike the material process of capitalist and of communist society. He uses the term ‘labor’ to mean what capitalism actually understands by it in the last analysis, that activity which creates surplus value in commodity production, or, which ‘produces capital’. Other kinds of activity are not ‘productive labor’ and hence are not labor in the proper sense. Labor thus means that free and universal development is denied the individual who labors, and it is clear that in this state of affairs the liberation of the individual is at once the negation of labor.
An ‘association of free individuals’ to Marx is a society wherein the material process of production no longer determines the entire pattern of human life. Marx’s idea of a rational society implies an order in which it is not the universality of labor but the universal satisfaction of all individual potentialities that constitutes the principle of social organization. He contemplates a society that gives to each not according to his work but his needs Mankind becomes free only when the material perpetuation of life is a function of the abilities and happiness of associated individuals.
We can now see that the Marxian theory has developed a full contradiction to the basic conception of idealist philosophy. The idea of reason has been superseded by the idea of happiness. Historically, the first was interlaced into a society in which the intellectual forces of production were detached from the material ones. Within this framework of social and economic iniquities, the life of reason was a life of higher dignity. It dictated individual sacrifice for the sake of some higher universal independent of the ‘base’ impulses and drives of individuals.
The idea of happiness, on the other hand, roots itself firmly in the demand for a social ordering that would sett aside the class structure of society. Hegel had emphatically denied that the progress of reason would have anything to do with the satisfaction of individual happiness. Even the most advanced concepts of the Hegelian philosophy, as we have shown, preserved and in the last analysis condoned the negativity of the existing social system. Reason could prevail even though the reality shrieked of individual frustration: idealist culture and the technological progress of civil society bear witness of that. Happiness could not. The demand that free individuals attain satisfaction militated against the entire set-up of traditional culture. The Marxian theory consequently rejected even the advanced ideas of the Hegelian scheme. The category of happiness made manifest the positive content of materialism. Historical materialism appeared at first as a denunciation of the materialism prevalent in bourgeois society, and the materialist principle was in this respect a critical instrument of expose directed against a society that enslaved men to the blind mechanisms of material production. The idea of the free and universal realization of individual happiness, per contra, denoted an affirmative materialism, that is to say, an affirmation of the material satisfaction of man.
We have dwelt rather extensively upon Marx’s early writings because they emphasize tendencies that have been attenuated in the post-Marxian development of his critique of society, namely, the elements of communistic individualism, the repudiation of any fetishism concerning the socialization of the means of production or the growth of the productive forces, the subordination of all these factors to the idea of the free realization of the individual. Under all aspects, however, Marx’s early writings are mere preliminary stages to his mature theory, stages that should not be overemphasized.
Marx rests his theories on the assumption that the labor process determines the totality of human existence and thus gives to society its basic pattern. It now remains for him to give the exact analysis of this process. The early writings took labor to be the general form of man’s struggle with nature. ‘Labor is at first a process between man and nature, a process in which man mediates, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature by his own action ’. In this respect labor is basic to all forms of society.
The capitalistic ordering of labor is designated in Marx’s early essays as ‘alienation’, and hence as an ‘unnatural’, degenerated form of labor. The question arises, how has such a degeneration become possible? And this is more than a quaestio facti, since alienated labor appears as, a fact only in the light of its abolition. The analysis of the prevailing form of labor is simultaneously an analysis of the premises of its abolition.
In other words, Marx views the existing conditions of labor with an eye to their negation in an actually free society. His categories are negative and at the same time positive: they present a negative state of affairs in the light of its positive solution, revealing the true situation in existing society as the prelude to its passing into a new form. All the Marxian concepts extend, as it were, in these two dimensions, the first of which is the complex of given social relationships, and the second, the complex of elements inherent in the social reality that make for its transformation into a free social order. This twofold content determines Marx’s entire analysis of the labor process. We shall now deal with the conclusions he draws.
In the prevailing social system, labor produces commodities. Commodities are use-values to be exchanged on the market. Every product of labor is, as a commodity, exchangeable for every other product of labor. It has an exchange value that equates it with all other commodities. This universal homogeneity, by which all commodities are equated with all others, cannot be ascribed to the use-values of commodities, for, as use-values, they are exchanged only in so far as they are different from one another. Their exchange value, on the other hand, is a ‘purely quantitative relation’. ‘As exchange value, one kind of use-value is worth as much as another kind, if taken in the right proportion. The exchange value of a palace can be expressed in a certain number of boxes of shoe blacking. Vice versa, London manufacturers of shoe blacking have expressed the exchange value of their many boxes of blacking, in palaces. Thus, entirely apart from their natural forms, and without regard to the specific kind of wants for which they serve as use-values, commodities in certain quantities equal each other, take each other’s place in exchange, pass as equivalents, and, in spite of their variegated appearance,’ are all of a piece. The reason for this homogeneity must be sought in the nature of labor.
All commodities are products of human labor; they are ‘materialized [vergegenständlichte] labor’. As embodiments of social labor, ‘all commodities are the crystallization of the same substance’. At first this labor appears to be just as diversified as the use-values produced by it. Labor performed in the production of wheat is quite different from that used in the production of shoes or cannon. ‘What in reality appears as a difference in use-values is, in the process of production, a difference in the work creating those use-values’. If, then, the property common to all commodities is labor, it must be labor stripped of all qualitative distinctions. That would leave labor as the quantity of labor-power expended in the production of a good. This quantity is ‘indifferent to the form, content, and individuality’ of the labor; it is therefore ready for a purely quantitative measurement, equally applicable to all kinds of individual labor. The standard of such measurement is given by time. ‘Just as the quantitative existence of motion is time, so the quantitative existence of labor is labor-time’. If all specificity of labor is abstracted, one act of labor is distinguished from another only by its duration. In this ‘abstract, universal’ form, labor represents the common property of all commodities that becomes constitutive of their exchange value. ‘Labor creating exchange value is ... abstract, general labor’.
But even the time-measurement of labor still leaves an individual factor. The amount of labor-time spent by different workers in the production of one and the same kind of commodity varies according to their physical and mental condition and their technical equipment. These individual variations are cancelled in a further step of reduction. The labor-time is computed for the average technical standard prevailing in production, hence, the time that determines exchange value is ‘socially necessary labor time’. The ‘labor time contained in a commodity is the labor-time necessary for its production, i.e. it is the labor-time which is required for the production of another specimen of the same commodity under the same general conditions of production’. Marx thus comes to the fact that the phenomenon of labor covers two entirely different kinds of labor: (1) concrete specific labor, correlative to concrete specific use-values (carpentry, shoemaking, agricultural labor, etc.) and (2) abstract universal labor, as expressed in the respective exchange values of commodities. Every single act of labor in commodity production comprises both abstract and concrete labor — just as any product of social labor represents both exchange value and use-value. The social process of production, however, when it determines the value of commodities, sets aside the variety of concrete labor and retains as the standard of measurement the proportion of necessary abstract labor contained in a commodity.
Marx’s conclusion that the value of commodities is determined by the quantity of abstract labor socially necessary for their reproduction is the fundamental thesis of his labor theory of value. It is introduced not as a theorem, but as the description of a historical process. The reduction of concrete to abstract labor ‘appears to be an abstraction, but it is an abstraction that takes place daily in the social process of production’. Since it is the theoretical conception of a historical process, the labor theory of value cannot be developed in the manner of a pure theory.
It is a well-known fact that Marx considered the discovery of the twofold character of labor to be his original contribution to economic theory, and to be pivotal for a clear comprehension of political economy. His distinction between concrete and abstract labor allows him insights to which the conceptual apparatus of classical political economy was necessarily blind. The classical economists designated ‘labor’ as the sole source of all social wealth, and overlooked the fact that it is only abstract, universal labor that creates value in a commodity-producing society, while concrete particular labor merely preserves and transfers already existing values. In the production of cotton spinning, for example, the concrete activity of the individual worker merely transfers the value of the means of production to the product. His concrete activity does not increase the value of the product. The product, however, does appear on the market with a new value in addition to that of the means of production. This new value results from the fact that a certain quantity of abstract labor-power, that is, labor-power irrespective of concrete form, has been added in the process of production to the object of labor. Since the worker does not do double work in the same time, the double result (preservation of value and the creation of new value) can be explained only by the dual character of his labor. ‘By the simple addition of a certain quantity of labor, new value is added, and by the quality of this added labor, the original values of the means of production are preserved in the product’.
The process in which labor-power becomes an abstract quantitative unit characterizes a ‘specifically social form of labor’ to be distinguished from that form which is ‘the natural condition of human existence,’ namely, labor as productive activity directed to the adaptation of nature. This specifically social form of labor is that prevalent in capitalism.
Under capitalism, labor produces commodities, that is, the products of labor appear as exchange values. But how does this system of universal commodity production, which is not directly oriented to the satisfaction of individual needs, tend to fulfill these needs? How do the independent producers know that they produce actual use-values?
Use-values are means for the gratification of human wants. Since every form of society must satisfy the needs of its members in some degree, in order to maintain their lives, ‘the use-value of things remains a prerequisite’ to commodity production. Under the commodity system, the individual’s need is a fraction of the ‘social need’ made manifest on the market. The distribution of use-values takes place according to the social distribution of labor. The satisfaction of a demand presupposes that the use-values are available on the market, while the latter will appear on the market only if society is willing to devote a portion of its labor-time to producing them. A certain amount of production and consumption goods is required to reproduce and maintain society at its prevailing level. ‘The social need, that is the use-value on a social scale, appears here as a determining factor for the amount of social labor which is to be supplied by the various particular spheres’ of production. A definite quota of labor-time is spent in the production of machines, buildings, roads, textiles, wheat, cannon, perfumes, etc. Marx says that ‘society’ allots the available labor-time needed for these. Society, however, is not a conscious subject. Capitalist society provides for no complete association or planning. How, then, does it distribute labor-time to various types of production in accordance with social needs?
The individual is ‘free’. No authority may tell him how he is to maintain himself; everyone may choose to work at what he pleases. One individual may decide to produce shoes, another books, a third rifles, a fourth golden buttons. But the goods each produces are commodities, that is, use-values not for himself but for other individuals. Each must exchange his products for the other use-values that will satisfy his own needs. In other words, the satisfaction of his own needs presupposes that his own products fill a social need. But he cannot know this in advance. Only when he brings the products of his labor to the market will he learn whether or not he expended social labor-time. The exchange value of his goods will show him whether or not they satisfy a social need. If he can sell them at or above his production cost, society was willing to allot a quantum of its labor-time to their production; otherwise, he wasted or did not spend socially necessary labor-time. The exchange value of his commodities decides his social fate. The ‘form in which this proportional distribution of labor operates, in a state of society where the interconnection of social labor is manifested in the private exchange of the individual products of labor, is precisely the exchange value of these products,’ and thus determines the proportional fulfillment of the social need.
Marx calls this mechanism by which the commodity producing society distributes the labor-time at its disposal among the different branches of production the law of value. The different branches that have been made independent in the development of modern society are integrated through the market, where the exchange value of the commodities produced yields the measure of the social need they satisfy.
The supplying of society with use-values is thus governed by the law of value, which has superseded the freedom of the individual. He depends, for the gratification of his needs, on the market, for he buys the means for this gratification in the form of exchange values. And he finds the exchange values of the goods he desires to be a pre-given quantity over which he, as an individual, has no power whatever.
Moreover, the social need that appears on the market is not identical with the real need, but only with ‘solvent social need’. The various demands are conditional upon the buying power of the individuals, and therefore, upon ‘the mutual relations of the different social classes and their relative economic position’. The individual’s desires and wants are shaped and, with the vast majority, restricted by the situation of the class to which he belongs, in such a way that he cannot express his real need. Marx summarizes this state of affairs when he says: ‘The need for commodities on the market, the demand, differs quantitatively from the actual social need’.
Even if the market were to manifest the actual social need, the law of value would continue to operate as a blind mechanism outside the conscious control of individuals. It would continue to exert the pressure of a ‘natural law’ (Naturgesetz), the necessity of which, far from precluding, would rather insure the rule of chance over society. The system of relating independent individuals to one another through the necessary labor-time contained in the commodities they exchange may seem to be one of utmost rationality. In reality, however, this system organizes only waste and disproportion.
Society buys the articles which it demands by devoting to their production a portion of its available labor-time. That means, society buys them by spending a definite quantity of the labor-time over which it disposes. That part of society, to which the division of labor assigns the task of employing its labor in the production of the desired article, must be given an equivalent for it of other social labor, incorporated in articles which it wants. There is, however, no necessary, but only an accidental, connection between the volume of society’s demand for a certain article and the volume represented by the production of this article in the total production, or the quantity of social labor spent on this article ... True, every individual article, or every definite quantity of any kind of commodities, contains, perhaps, only the social labor required for its production, and from this point of view the market-value of this entire mass of commodities of a certain kind represents only necessary labor. Nevertheless, if this commodity has been produced in excess of the temporary demand of society for it, so much of the social labor has been wasted, and in that case this mass of commodities represents a much smaller quantity of labor on the market than is actually incorporated in it.
From the point of view of the individual, the law of value asserts itself only ex post; waste of labor is inevitable. The market provides a correction and a punishment for individual freedom; any deviation from the socially necessary labor-time means defeat in the economic competitive struggle through which men maintain their lives in this social order.
The guiding question of Marx’s analysis was, How does capitalist society supply its members with the necessary use-values? And the answer disclosed a process of blind necessity, chance, anarchy and frustration. The introduction of the category of use-value was the introduction of a forgotten factor, forgotten, that is, by the classical political economy which was occupied only with the phenomenon of exchange value. In the Marxian theory, this factor becomes an instrument that cuts through the mystifying reification of the commodity world. For, restoration of the category of use-value to the center of economic analysis means a sharp questioning of the economic process as to whether and how it fills the real needs of individuals. Behind the exchange-relations of capitalism it shows the actual human relations, warped to a ‘negative totality’ and ordered by uncontrolled economic laws. Marx’s analysis showed him the law of value as the general ‘form of Reason’ in the existent social system. The law of value was the form in which the common interest (the perpetuation of society) asserted itself through individual freedom. That law, though it manifested itself on the market, was seen to originate in the process of production (the socially necessary labor-time that lay at its root was production time). For this reason, it was only an analysis of the process of production that would yield a yes or no answer to the question, Can this society ever fulfill its promise: individual liberty within a rational whole?
Marx’s analysis of capitalist production assumes that capitalist society has actually emancipated the individual, that men enter the productive process free and equal, and that the process turns from its own inner rationale. Marx grants the most favorable conditions to civil society, disregards all complicating disturbances. The abstractions that underlie the first volume of Capital (for example, that all commodities are exchanged according to their values, that external trade is excluded, etc.) put the reality so that it ‘conforms with its notion’. This methodological procedure is in keeping with the dialectical conception. The inadequacy between existence and essence belongs to the very core of reality. If the analysis were to confine itself to the forms in which reality appears, it could not grasp the essential structure from which these forms and their inadequacy originate. Unfolding the essence of capitalism requires that provisional abstraction be made from those phenomena that might be attributed to a contingent and imperfect form of capitalism.
From the beginning, Marx’s analysis takes capitalist production as a historical totality. The capitalist mode of production is a specifically historical form of commodity production that originated under the conditions of ‘primary accumulation,’ such as the wholesale expulsion of peasants from their land , the transformation of arable soil into pasture in order to furnish wool for a rising textile industry, the accumulation of large pools of wealth through the plunder of new colonies, the breakdown of the guild system when it met the power of the merchant and industrialist. There arose in the process the modern laborer, freed of all dependence on feudal lords and guild masters, but likewise cut off from the means and instruments through which he might utilize his labor-power for his own ends. He was free to sell his labor-power to those who held these means and instruments, to those who owned the soil, the materials of labor, and the proper means of production. Labor-power and the means for its material realization became commodities possessed by different owners. This process took place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and resulted, with the universal expansion of commodity production, in a new stratification of society. Two main classes faced each other: the beneficiaries of primary accumulation and the impoverished masses deprived of their previous means of subsistence.
They were really emancipated. The ‘natural’ and personal dependencies of the feudal order had been abolished. ‘The exchange of commodities of itself implies no other relations of dependence than those which result from its own nature’. Everyone was free to exchange the commodities he owned. The first group exercised this freedom when it used its wealth to appropriate and utilize the means of production, whereas the masses enjoyed the freedom of selling the only good left to them, namely, their labor-power.
The primary conditions of capitalism were herewith at hand: free wage labor and private property in the means of commodity production. From this point on, capitalist production could go its course entirely under its own power. Commodities are exchanged by the free will of their owners who enter the market free of all external compulsion, in the full joy of knowledge that their commodities will exchange as equivalents, and that perfect justice will prevail. Also, the exchange value of every commodity is determined by the necessary labor-time required for its production; and the measurement of this labor-time is apparently the most impartial social standard. What is more, production starts with a free contract. One party sells his labor-power to the other. The labor-time necessary for the production of this labor-power is the labor-time that goes into making enough commodities to reproduce the worker’s existence. The buyer pays the price of this commodity. Nothing interferes with the perfect justice of the labor contract; both parties are treated equally as free commodity owners. They ‘deal with each other as on the basis of equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other seller; both, therefore, equal in the eyes of the law’. The labor contract, the basis of capitalist production, is ostensibly the realization of freedom, equality, and justice.
But labor-power is a peculiar kind of commodity. It is the only commodity whose use-value it is to be ‘a source not only of value, but of more value than it has itself’. This ‘surplus value,’ created by the abstract universal labor hidden behind its concrete form, falls to the buyer of labor-power without any equivalent, since it does not appear as an independent commodity. The value of the labor-power sold to the capitalist is replaced in part of the time the laborer actually works; the rest of this time goes unpaid. Marx’s statement of the way surplus value arises may be summarized in the following argument: that the production of the commodity, labor-power, requires part of a labor day, whereas the laborer really works a full day. The value paid by the capitalist is part of the actual value of the labor-power in use, while the other part of the latter is appropriated by the capitalist without remuneration. This argument, however, if isolated from Marx’s entire conception of labor, retains an accidental element. Actually, Marx’s presentation of the production of surplus value is intrinsically connected with his analysis of the twofold character of labor and must be interpreted in the light of this phenomenon.
The capitalist pays the exchange value of the commodity, labor-power, and buys its use-value, namely, labor. ‘The value of labor-power, and the value which that labor-power creates in the labor process, are two entirely different magnitudes’. The capitalist puts the labor-power he bought to work at the machinery of production. The labor process contains both an objective and a subjective factor: the means of production on the one hand and labor-power on the other. The analysis of the twofold character of labor has shown that the objective factor creates no new value — the value of the means of production simply reappears in the product. ‘It is otherwise with the subjective factor of the labor process, with labor-power in action. While the laborer, by virtue of his labor being of a specialized kind that has a special object (durch die zweckmassige Form der Arbeit), preserves and transfers to the product the value of the means of production, he at the same time, by the mere act of working, creates each instant an additional or new value’. The quality of preserving value by adding new value is, as it were, a ‘natural gift’ of labor-power, ‘which costs the laborer nothing, but which is very advantageous to the capitalist’. This property possessed by abstract, universal labor, hidden behind its concrete forms, though it is the sole source of new value, itself has no proper value. The labor contract thus necessarily involves exploitation.
The twofold character of labor, then, is the condition that makes surplus value possible. By virtue of the fact that labor has this dual form, the private appropriation of labor-power inevitably leads to exploitation. The result issues from the very nature of labor whenever labor-power becomes a commodity.
For labor-power to become a commodity, however, there must be ‘free’ labor: the individual must be free to sell his labor-power to him who is free and able to buy it. The labor contract epitomizes this freedom, equality, and justice for civil society. This historical form of freedom, equality, and justice is thus the very condition of exploitation. Marx summarizes the whole in a striking paragraph:
[The area] within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labor-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.
The labor contract, from which Marx derives the essential connection between freedom and exploitation, is the fundamental pattern for all relations in civil society. Labor is the way men develop their abilities and needs in the struggle with nature and history, and the social frame impressed on labor is the historical form of life mankind has bestowed upon itself. The implications of the free labor contract lead Marx to see that labor produces and perpetuates its own exploitation. In other words, in the continuing process of capitalist society, freedom produces and perpetuates its own opposite. The analysis is in this wise an immanent critique of individual freedom as it originates in capitalist society and as it develops pari passu with the development of capitalism. The economic forces of capitalism, left to their devices, create enslavement, poverty, and the intensity of class conflicts. The truth of this form of freedom is thus its negation.
‘Living’ labor, labor-power, is the only factor that increases the value of the product of labor beyond the value of the means of production. This increase in value transforms the products of labor into components of capital. Labor, therefore, produces not only its own exploitation, but also the means for this exploitation, namely, capital.
Capital, on the other hand, requires that the surplus value be converted anew into capital. If the capitalist were to consume his surplus value instead of reinvesting it in the process of production, the latter would cease to yield him any profit, and the incentive of commodity production would vanish. ‘Accumulation resolves itself into the reproduction of capital on a progressively increasing scale,’ and this in turn is rendered possible only by a progressively increasing utilization of labor-power for commodity production. Capitalist production on a progressively increasing scale is identical with exploitation developing on the same scale. The accumulation of capital means growing impoverishment of the masses, ‘increase of the proletariat’.
With all these negative features, capitalism develops the productive forces at a rapid pace. The inherent requirements of capital demand that surplus value be increased through increase in the productivity of labor (rationalization and intensification). But technological advance diminishes the quantity of living labor (the subjective factor) used in the productive process, in proportion to the quantity of the means of production (the objective factor). The objective factor increases as the subjective factor decreases. This change in the technical composition of capital is reflected in the change of its ‘value-composition’: the value of labor-power diminishes as the value of the means of production increases. The net result is an increase in ‘the organic composition of capital’. With the progress of production goes an increase in the mass of capital in the hands of individual capitalists. The weaker is expropriated by the stronger in the competitive struggle, and capital becomes centralized in an ever smaller circle of capitalists. Free individual competition of the liberalist stamp is transformed into monopolist competition among giant enterprises. On the other hand, the increasing organic composition of capital tends to decrease the rate of capitalist profit, since the utilization of labor-power, the sole source of surplus value, diminishes in ratio to the means of production employed.
The danger of the falling rate of profit aggravates the competitive struggle as well as the class struggle: political methods of exploitation supplement the economic ones, which slowly reach their limit. The requirement that ,capital be utilized, that there be production for production’s sake, leads, even under ideal conditions, to inevitable disproportions between the two spheres of production, that of production goods and that of consumption goods, resulting in constant overproduction. The profitable investment of capital becomes increasingly difficult. The struggle for new markets plants the seed of constant international warfare.
We have just summarized some of the decisive conclusions of Marx’s analysis of the laws of capitalism. The picture is that of a social order that progresses through the development of the contradictions inherent in it. Still, it progresses, and these contradictions are the very means through which occur a tremendous growth in the productivity of labor, an all-embracing use and mastery of natural resources, and a loosing of hitherto unknown capacities and needs among men. Capitalist society is a union of contradictions. It gets freedom through exploitation, wealth through impoverishment, advance in production through restriction of consumption. The very structure of capitalism is a dialectical one: every form and institution of the economic process begets its determinate negation, and the crisis is the extreme form in which the contradictions are expressed.
The law of value, which governs the social contradictions, has the force of a natural necessity. ‘Only as an internal law, and from the point of view of the individual agents as a blind law, does the law of value exert its influence here and maintain the social equilibrium of production in the turmoil of its accidental fluctuations’. The results are of the same blind sort. The falling rate of profit inherent in the capitalist mechanism undermines the very foundations of the system and builds the wall beyond which capitalist production cannot advance. The contrast between the abundant wealth and power of a few and the perpetual poverty of the mass becomes increasingly sharper. The highest development of the productive forces coincides with oppression and misery in full flood. The real possibility of general happiness is negated by the social relationships posited by man himself. The negation of this society and its transformation become the single outlook for liberation.
We may now attempt to summarize the qualities that distinguish the Marxian from the Hegelian dialectic. We have emphasized that Marx’s dialectical conception of reality was originally motivated by the same datum as Hegel’s, namely, by the negative character of reality. In the social world, this negativity carried forward the contradictions of class society and thus remained the motor of the social process. Every single fact and condition was drawn into this process so that its significance could be grasped only when seen in this totality to which it belonged. For Marx, as for Hegel, ‘the truth’ lies only in the whole, the ‘negative totality’.
However, the social world becomes a negative totality only in the process of an abstraction, which is imposed upon the dialectical method by the structure of its subject matter, capitalist society. We may even say that the abstraction is capitalism’s own work, and that the Marx an method only follows this process. Marx’s analysis has shown that capitalist economy is built upon and perpetuated by the constant reduction of concrete to abstract labor. This economy step by step retreats from the concrete of human activity and needs, and achieves the integration of individual activities and needs only through a complex of abstract relations in which individual work counts merely in so far as it represents socially necessary labor-time, and in which the relations among men appear as relations of things (commodities). The commodity world is a ‘falsified’ and ‘mystified’ world, and its critical analysis must first follow the abstractions which make up this world, and must then take its departure from these abstract relations in order to arrive at their real content. The second step is thus the abstraction from the abstraction, or the abandonment of a false concreteness, so that the true concreteness might be restored. Accordingly, the Marxian theory elaborates first the abstract relations that determine the commodity world (such as commodity, exchange value, money, wages) and returns from them to the fully developed content of capitalism (the structural tendencies of the capitalist world that lead to its destruction).
We have said that for Marx, as well as for Hegel, the truth lies only in the negative totality. However, the totality in which the Marxian theory moves is other than that of Hegel’s philosophy, and this difference indicates the decisive difference between Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectics. For Hegel, the totality was the totality of reason, a closed ontological system, finally identical with the rational system of history. Hegel’s dialectical process was thus a universal ontological one in which history was patterned on the metaphysical process of being. Marx, on the other hand, detached dialectic from this ontological base. In his work, the negativity of reality becomes a historical condition which cannot he hypostatized as a metaphysical state of affairs. In other words, it becomes a social condition, associated with a particular historical form of society. The totality that the Marxian dialectic gets to is the totality of class society, and the negativity that underlies its contradictions and shapes its every content is the negativity of class relations. The dialectical totality again includes nature, but only in so far as the latter enters and conditions the historical process of social reproduction. In the progress of class society, this reproduction assumes various forms at the various levels of its development, and these are the framework of all the dialectical concepts.
The dialectical method has thus of its very nature become a historical method. The dialectical principle is not a general principle equally applicable to any subject matter. To be sure, every fact whatever can be subjected to a dialectical analysis, for example, a glass of water, as in Lenin’s famous discussion. But all such analyses would lead into the structure of the socio-historical process and show it to be constitutive in the facts under analysis. The dialectic takes facts as elements of a definite, historical totality from which they cannot be isolated his reference to the example of a glass of water, Lenin states that ‘the whole of human practice must enter the “definition” of the object’; the independent objectivity of the glass of water is thus dissolved. Every fact can be subjected to dialectical analysis only in so far as every fact is influenced by the antagonisms of the social process.
The historical character of the Marxian dialectic embraces the prevailing negativity as well as its negation. The given state of affairs is negative and can be rendered positive only by liberating the possibilities immanent in it. This last, the negation of the negation, is accomplished by establishing a new order of things. The negativity and its negation are two different phases of the same historical process, straddled by man’s historical action. The ‘new’ state is the truth of the old, but that truth does not steadily and automatically grow out of the earlier state; it can be set free only by an autonomous act on the part of men, that will cancel the whole of the existing negative state. Truth, in short, is not a realm apart from historical reality, nor a region of eternally valid ideas. To be sure, it transcends the given historical reality, but only in so far as it crosses from one historical stage to another. The negative state as well as its negation is a concrete event within the same totality.
The Marxian dialectic is a historical method in still another sense: it deals with a particular stage of the historical process. Marx criticizes Hegel’s dialectic for generalizing the dialectical movement into a movement of all being, of being-as-such, and getting, therefore merely ‘the abstract, logical, speculative expression of the movement of history’. Moreover, the movement to which Hegel gave such abstract expression, and which he thought was general, actually characterizes only a particular phase of man’s history, namely, ‘the history of his maturing’ (Entstehungsgeschichte). Marx’s distinction between the history of this maturing and the ‘actual history’ of mankind amounts to a delimitation of the dialectic. The Entstehungsgeschichte of mankind, which Marx calls his prehistory, is the history of class society. Man’s actual history will begin when this society has been abolished. The Hegelian dialectic gives the abstract logical form of the pre-historical development, the Marxian dialectic its real concrete movement. Marx’s dialectic, therefore, is still bound up with the pre-historical phase.
The negativity with which Marxian dialectic begins is that characterizing human existence in class society; the antagonisms that intensify this negativity and eventually abolish it are the antagonisms of class society. It is of the very essence of the Marxian dialectic to imply that, with the transition from the pre-history represented by class society to the history of classless society, the entire structure of historical movement will change. Once mankind has become the conscious subject of its development, its history can no longer be outlined in forms that apply to the prehistorical phase.
Marx’s dialectical method still reflects the sway of blind economic forces over the course of society. The dialectical analysis of social reality in terms of its inherent contradictions and their resolution shows this reality to be overpowered by objective mechanisms that operate with the necessity of ‘natural’ (physical) laws — only thus can the contradiction be the ultimate force that keeps society moving. The movement is dialectical in itself inasmuch as it is not yet piloted by the self-conscious activity of freely associated individuals. The dialectical laws are the developed knowledge of the ‘natural’ laws of society, and therefore a step towards their annulment, but they are still a knowledge of ‘natural’ laws. To be sure, the struggle with the ‘realm of necessity’ will continue with man’s passage to the stage of his ‘actual history,’ and the negativity and the contradiction will not disappear. Nevertheless, when society has become the free subject of this struggle, the latter will be waged in entirely different forms. For this reason, it is not permissible to impose the dialectical structure of pre-history upon the future history of mankind.
The concept that definitely connects Marx’s dialectic with the history of class society is the concept of necessity. The dialectical laws are necessary laws; the various forms of class society necessarily perish from their inner contradictions. The laws of capitalism work with ‘iron necessity towards inevitable results,’ Marx says. This necessity does not, however, apply to the positive transformation of capitalist society. It is true, Marx assumed that the same mechanisms that bring about the concentration and centralization of capital also produce ‘the socialization of labor’. ‘Capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation,’ namely, property based ‘on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production’. Nevertheless, it would be a distortion of the entire significance of Marxian theory to argue from the inexorable necessity that governs the development of capitalism to a similar necessity in the matter of transformation to socialism. When capitalism is negated, social processes no longer stand under the rule of blind natural laws. This is precisely what distinguishes the nature of the new from the old. The transition from capitalism’s inevitable death to socialism is necessary, but only in the sense that the full development of the individual is necessary. The new social union of individuals, again, is necessary, but only in the sense that it is necessary to use available productive forces for the general satisfaction of all individuals. It is the realization of freedom and happiness that necessitates the establishment of an order wherein associated individuals will determine the organization of their life. We have already emphasized that the qualities of the future society are reflected in the current forces that are driving towards its realization. There can be no blind necessity in tendencies that terminate in a free and self-conscious society. The negation of capitalism begins within capitalism itself, but even in the phases that precede revolution there is active the rational spontaneity that will animate the post-revolutionary phases. The revolution depends indeed upon a totality of objective conditions: it requires a certain attained level of material and intellectual culture, a self-conscious and organized working class on an international scale, acute class struggle. These become revolutionary conditions, however, only if seized upon and directed by a conscious activity that has in mind the socialist goal. Not the slightest natural necessity or automatic inevitability guarantees the transition from capitalism to socialism.
Capitalism has itself extended the scope and power of rational practices to a considerable degree. The ‘natural laws’ that make capitalism work have been counteracted by tendencies of another kind, which have retarded the effect of the necessary processes and thereby protracted the life of the capitalist order. Capitalism has been subjected in certain areas to large-scale political and administrative regulations. Planning, for example, is not an exclusive feature of socialist society. The natural necessity of the social laws Marx expounded implied the possibility of such planning under capitalism, when they referred to an interplay of order and chance, of conscious action and blind mechanisms. The possibility of rational planning under capitalism does not, of course, impair the validity of the fundamental laws that Marx discovered in this system — the system is destined to perish by virtue of these laws. But the process might involve a long period of barbarism. The latter can be prevented only by free action. The revolution requires the maturity of many forces, but the greatest among them is the subjective force, namely, the revolutionary class itself. The realization of freedom an reason requires the free rationality of those who achieve it.
Marxian theory is, then, incompatible with fatalistic determinism. True, historical materialism involves the determinist principle that consciousness is conditioned by social existence. We have attempted to show, however, that the necessary dependence enunciated by this principle applies to the ‘pre-historical’ life, namely, to the life of class society. The relations of production that restrict and distort man’s potentialities inevitably determine his consciousness, precisely because society is not a free and conscious subject. As long as man is incapable of dominating these relations and using them to gratify the needs and desires of the whole, they will assume the form of an objective, independent entity. Consciousness, caught in and overpowered by these relations, necessarily becomes ideological.
Of course, the consciousness of men will continue to be determined by the material processes that reproduce their society, even when men have come to regulate their social relations in such a way that these contribute best to the free development of all. But when these material processes have been made rational and have become the conscious work of men, the blind dependence of consciousness on social conditions will cease to exist. Reason, when determined by rational social conditions, is determined by itself. Socialist freedom embraces both sides of the relation between consciousness and social existence. The principle of historical materialism leads to its self-negation.
The labor process, which shows forth as fundamental in the Marxian analysis of capitalism and its genesis, is the ground on which the various branches of theory and practice operate in capitalist society. An understanding of the labor process, therefore, is at the same time an understanding of the source for the separation between theory and practice, and of the element that re-establishes their interconnection. Marxian theory is of its very nature an integral and integrating theory of society. The economic process of capitalism exercises a totalitarian influence over all theory and all practice, and an economic analysis that shatters the capitalist camouflage and breaks through its ‘reification’ will get down to the subsoil common to all theory and practice in this society.
Marxian economics leaves no room for an independent philosophy, psychology, or sociology. ‘Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence ... When reality is depicted, philosophy, as an independent branch of activity loses its medium of existence. At the best its place can only be taken by a summing-up of the most general results, abstractions which arise from the observation of the historical development of men’.
With the separation of theory from practice, philosophy became the sanctuary of true theory. Science was either pressed ‘into the service of capital’ or degraded to the position of a leisurely pastime remote from any concern with the actual struggles of mankind, while philosophy undertook in the medium of abstract thought to guard the solutions to man’s problem of needs, fears, and desires. ‘Pure Reason,’ reason purified of empirical contingencies, became the proper realm of truth.
Towards the conclusion of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant raises the three questions with which human reason is most vitally concerned: How can I know? What shall I do? What may I hope? These questions and the attempts at their solution indeed comprise the very core of philosophy, its concern for the essential potentialities of man amid the deprivations of reality. Hegel had placed this philosophic concern in the historical context of his time, so that it became manifest that Kant’s questions led into the actual historical process. Man’s knowledge, activity, and hope were referred in the direction of establishing a rational society. Marx set out to demonstrate the concrete forces and tendencies that prevented and those that promoted this goal. The material connection of his theory with a definite historical form of practice negated not only philosophy but sociology as well. The social facts that Marx analyzed (for example, the alienation of labor, the fetishism of the commodity world, surplus value, exploitation) are not akin to sociological facts, such as divorces, crimes, shifts in population, and business cycles. The fundamental relations of the Marxian categories are not within the reach of sociology or of any science that is preoccupied with describing and organizing the objective phenomena of society. They will appear as facts only to a theory that takes them in the preview of their negation. According to Marx, the correct theory is the consciousness of a practice that aims at changing the world.
Marx’s concept of truth, however, is far from relativism. There is only one truth and one practice capable of realizing it. Theory has demonstrated the tendencies that make for the attainment of a rational order of life, the conditions for creating this, and the initial steps to be taken. The final aim of the new social practice has been formulated: the abolition of labor, the employment of the socialized means of production for the free development of all individuals. The rest is the task of man’s own liberated activity. Theory accompanies the practice at every moment, analyzing the changing situation and formulating its concepts accordingly. The concrete conditions for realizing the truth may vary, but the truth remains the same and theory remains its ultimate guardian. Theory will preserve the truth even if revolutionary practice deviates from its proper path. Practice follows the truth, not vice versa.
This absolutism of truth completes the philosophical heritage of the Marxian theory and once for all separates dialectical theory from the subsequent forms of positivism and relativism.