Lawrence Wilde (1998)

Ethical Marxism

Source: Ethical Marxism and its Radical Critics, MacMillan Press, 1998;
Introduction, Chapter 1 and half of Chapter 2 reproduced here.

1 Introduction: Marx, Ethics and Ethical Marxism

Least of all must a philosophy be accepted as a philosophy by virtue of an authority or of good faith, be the authority even that of a people and the faith that of centuries. The proof can be provided only by expounding its essence (Karl Marx, Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy, 1841).

Marx disdained ethical discourse and consistently opposed moralistic interventions in the social and political issues of his day, once proclaiming that ‘communists do not preach morality at all’. [The German Ideology, MECW 5, p247] He showed no interest in abstract discussions about how and why individuals ought to act towards each other in a morally defensible way, and he argued that capitalism had either destroyed morality or turned it into a palpable lie. [The German Ideology, MECW 5, p73] Attempts to build support for socialist ideas on moral precepts were viewed as distractions from the priority of confronting the underlying causes of social misery in the processes of material production. [Communist Manifesto, Chapter 3] For the most part the followers of Marx refused to take the question of ethics seriously, and even when Kari Kautsky wrote a book on the subject he concluded that progress flowed from historical necessity rather than moral ideals such as freedom, equality, fraternity, justice and humanity. [Kautsky, Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History] In the early part of the twentieth century the German theorists of the Marburg School and the Austrians Max Adler and Otto Bauer attempted to supplement Marx’s work with neo-Kantian moral theory, but such a move stands in flat contradiction to Marx’s stated position. It has been claimed that the legacy of Marxian and Marxist incoherence on morality has encouraged a crude consequentialism which may justify any means of action by reference to their necessity for the achievement of an end which is only vaguely stated. The horrors perpetrated by regimes claiming allegiance to Marxism, such as those of Stalin and Pol Pot, demand that we take this criticism seriously.

How, then, is it possible to talk about the connection between Marx’s thought and ethics? Let us assume that ethics and morality are interchangeable terms referring to the consideration of human values, of how we ought to behave towards one another, and of how we ought to live. The emphasis in moral philosophy since Kant has been on duty, of how and why autonomous individuals ought to conduct themselves, but prior to that the question of ‘how we ought to live’ involved consideration of social and political life. In his Ethics Aristotle considered that securing the good of the community was ‘something finer and more sublime’ than securing what is good for the individual. Hegel, reaching back to Ancient Greek philosophy, emphasised the irreducible sociality of freedom and the ideal of the ethical community. Marx showed no interest in discussing individual moral duty, but I would argue that a commitment to some form of ethical community is immanent in his analysis of the laws of capitalist production, which is replete with indignant condemnations of the suffering it inflicted on the working class. As Richard Norman has argued, Marx’s philosophy challenges the conventional ethical focus on the responsible actions of individuals. The question then arises as to whether Marx’s analysis of capitalism implies that its definitive social practices are morally flawed, or unjust, and this will be discussed in Chapter 3.

The totality of the harrowing descriptions of working-class life contained in the text and footnotes of Capital may provide the arsenal for a moral attack on capitalism, but Marx did not make such an attack, at least not directly. However, I will argue that his political economy, and indeed his entire social theory, is imbued with an ethic developed in the period from his espousal of communism in 1843 to the first formulation of his theory of historical development in 1846. Marx operated from a conception of human essence as creative social activity, analysed the way in which it was alienated in the capitalist mode of production, and strove for the realisation of this essence in communist society. Much of the evidence to support this interpretation was not available to students of Marx for the half-century following his death in 1883. The Comments on James Mill and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in which the alienation thesis is central, were first published in 1932; English translations were not published until 1967 and 1959 respectively. The German Ideology (1845-6) was published for the first time in 1932 and in English translation in 1964. The Grundrisse was published in a limited edition in German in the Soviet Union in 1939-41 and in available form in East Germany in 1953; the first complete English edition was published only in 1973. Even published works such as On the Jewish Question and The Holy Family were not readily available, so that the Marxist movement developed with no knowledge of Marx’s significant philosophical texts. The body of thought known as Marxism was largely disseminated through the glosses of Engels, who outlived him by 13 years, and Kautsky, leading theoretician of the Second International, neither of whom shared Marx’s philosophical subtlety.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the philosophy of human essence and its alienation, with its ethical connotations, remained hidden. It is to Lenin’s credit that he began to understand the philosophical significance of the passages on commodity fetishism in Capital by studying Hegel’s Logic. [Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, p. 180] Georgy Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness (1923), delivered a superb Hegelian reading of Marx’s thought, drawing out the centrality of the alienation thesis, without seeing the unpublished early writings. In the same year Karl Korsch published Marxism and Philosophy, which also highlighted the Hegelian influence on Marx’s work, and, like Lukács’s book, opened up the argument that Engels had failed to grasp Marx’s dialectical method. These works caused quite a stir, and the reaction of the Soviet leadership provided an early taste of how ideological ‘heresy’ was to be quelled in the world communist movement. Zinoviev, President of the Communist International, warned delegates to the 1924 World Congress that ‘if we get a few more of these professors spinning out their theories, we shall be lost’, concluding with chilling finality that ‘we cannot tolerate such theoretical revisionism of this kind in our Communist International’.” It was the Papacy against Galileo 300 years on. Lukács was forced to retract his position and submit to party discipline, and Korsch was expelled from the German Communist Party in 1926.

The insights of Lukács and Korsch were developed by the writers of the Frankfurt School, initially by Herbert Marcuse, who, in 1930, defended History and Class Consciousness for its ‘essential and inestimable meaning for the development of Marxism’ and also praised its polemic with Engels. As we shall see later, Marcuse was one of the first to recognise the significance of Marx’s early writings when they became available, and from this period it is possible to discern a tradition within Marxism which is variously known as humanist Marxism or Marxist humanism. Perry Anderson and J. G. Merquior have subsumed this humanist strain under the broader term ‘Western Marxism’, but this taxonomy is unsatisfactory, encompassing as it does both the structuralism of Louis Althusser and the humanism he set out to combat. Marxist humanism maintains the centrality of the alienation thesis in Marx’s social theory, and its overriding concern is to develop an understanding of the changing nature of ideological domination and the prospects for its contestation. This is still a very broad category, including theorists who resolutely avoided party political affiliation, such as the Frankfurt School and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as those who managed to work with great difficulties within communist parties, such as Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Bloch and Henri Lefebvre. The process of de-Stalinisation triggered by Khrushchev in 1956 provided an opening in some of the East European communist states for the development of humanist Marxism. These included notable contributions from Adam Schaff and Leszek Kolakowski in Poland, Karel Kosik in Czechoslovakia, and the students of Lukács in Hungary collectively known as the Budapest School.” In Yugoslavia, independent of Soviet domination, the theorists of the Praxis Group developed ideas concerning the overcoming of alienation and statism, and their annual conference on the island of Korcula (1963-75) provided an international focus for humanist Marxism. In 1965 Erich Fromm brought together 35 contributions from all over the world, both Marxist and non-Marxist, in Socialist Humanism, which reflected the strength of the appeal of the humanist interpretation of Marx.

In the 1960s a flood of commentaries stressing the continuity of the alienation thesis in Marx’s work made a significant impact on social science in Western universities. However, there was a reaction against this interpretation in the following decade, led in the West by Althusser and his followers, who recast Marx as a positive scientist and relegated the humanist and Hegelian elements in his work to the inferior status of ‘ideology’. In the East the shock of the Czechoslovak attempt to establish ‘socialism with a human face’ in 1968 reverberated through the Soviet system. The authorities clamped down on the humanist theorists, expelling them from universities and banning their works; socialists advocating democracy could not be tolerated in ‘actually existing socialism’. In Yugoslavia, the relative tolerance extended towards the Praxis Group was curtailed as their advocacy of wider democracy was seen as a threat by the League of Communists.

A renewal of academic interest in the specifically ethical dimension of Marx’s thought came about in the 1980s, inspired in many cases by a concern to ‘rescue’ Marx from the Althusserian interpretation. Writers such as George Brenkert, Allen Buchantin, Norman Geras, Steven Lukes, Kai Nielsen, Rodney Peffer and Philip Kain began to probe the normative elements of his work. A feature of this literature has been the consideration of Marx’s philosophical conception of what it is to be human, and its implications for how we ought to live. It had been widely accepted in orthodox Marxism that human nature altered as material conditions changed, but now it was argued that Marx, as well as appreciating the historical modification of human nature, also conceived of human nature in general, i.e. that which made us essentially human. Geras comments that even those writers who had been anxious to endorse the enduring importance of the alienation thesis in Marx’s social theory were reluctant to grasp the nettle and acknowledge that Marx had a conception of human nature in general (or human essence) from which we were alienated.” It is this idea of human essence which I take to be central to what I term ‘ethical Marxism’. There are strong links here with Aristotle’s philosophy, in which ‘essence’ ought to be fully realised in existence. For Aristotle, man is essentially rational, and happiness, or eudaemonia, is the goal of rational individuals acting virtuously. It is the duty of the statesman to create the conditions in which eudaemonia can be realised. For Marx, our essence is our capacity for social creativity, and this can be realised only by overcoming the alienation inherent in private property, replacing it with a communist society in which all are free and equal. The emancipation of humanity was to be brought about through the agency of the revolutionary working class. ‘Ethical’ Marxism, then, sees capitalism as the final obstacle to human freedom, draws out those normative elements in Marx’s thought which he left implicit, and extends them to widen our understanding of exploitation and oppression in late capitalism. As a ‘tradition’ it counts only a few fully paid-up members — I would specify Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Henri Lefebvre, and Mihailo Markovic — but I will argue that it holds a rich potential for the development of emancipatory theory in the coming century.

In his Introduction to Negative Dialectics Theodor Adorno comments that despite Marx’s judgement that the philosophers had merely interpreted the world, philosophy lives on because the moment to realise it was missed. Similarly the question of ethics lives on because the class struggle has not produced the good society. The revolutionary class consciousness which Marx anticipated failed to emerge with the further development of capitalism. Exploitation and oppression persist, but few can see an available resolution. Under these circumstances, Marx’s objections to criticising capitalist society in moral terms and his reticence on the conditions in which true human freedom could flourish may be called into question.

What sort of ethics is implied by ethical Marxism? As mentioned above, ethics in this context has more to do with the Ancient Greek conception of justice as the ‘virtue of society as a whole’ than the liberal focus on the actions of autonomous individuals without reference to the structures within which they operate. It directs us to look beyond the approaches to moral philosophy personified by Hume and Kant which MacIntyre has criticised as the failed Enlightenment project of justifying morality.” Ethical Marxism takes seriously the question of how alienation can be overcome so that the human essence of creative social activity can be enjoyed by all citizens. Only when the immense majority gain control over social processes which hitherto confronted them as irresistible and inevitable powers will the ‘prehistory’ of human society give way to truly human history. Brenkert argues that Marx’s work has an ethic of freedom and Lukes concludes that he adopts a morality of emancipation, and while I am sympathetic to these broad characterisations it is as well to keep in mind Marx’s warning not to be ‘deluded by the abstract word Freedom’. [Speech on the Question of Free Trade] There is a need to examine carefully why Marx considered that human freedom could not be achieved under capitalism, and how he conceived that it could be realised in communist society.

However, at this early stage a preliminary comment on the implications of Marx’s view of human freedom needs to be made. His vision is meaningful only if we assume an advanced form of radical democracy capable of respecting differences and producing agreements through transparent and popular procedures. Radical democratic practices are the conditio sine qua non for human emancipation as envisaged by Marx. As such, ethical Marxism necessarily involves an unambiguous rejection of the anti-democratic practices carried out by the world communist movement since the Russian Revolution. There is, of course, nothing new in absolving Marx from responsibility for the practices of Soviet Marxism, but as some commentators regard this as a dubious tactic I feel it necessary to insist that democracy was not some sort of ‘added extra’ for Marx. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party Marx and Engels envisaged a socialist revolution conducted by ‘the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority’, and they enjoined the working class to ‘win the battle for democracy’. Marxist movements everywhere were at the forefront of struggles to win full political democracy before the Russian Revolution, and the most popular title of their parties, Social Democracy, gave a clear indication that they aspired to extend democracy to the economic and social spheres. It was on this understanding that Kautsky castigated Lenin after the Revolution, and in view of the extirpation of democracy in the communist world it is essential to reiterate the magnitude of Bolshevism’s departure from the Marxian principle of the necessity of the self-emancipation of the working people. Consider two statements about Marx’s endeavour from two non-Marxist scholars, Eugene Kamenka and Steven Lukes. Kamenka concludes that ‘Marx’s belief in the rational, free and completely cooperative society of the human spirit ... was the foundation and driving force of his intellectual and political development.’ Lukes argues that ‘what is clear is that the ideal society to which Marx expectantly looked forward would be one in which, under conditions of abundance, human beings can achieve self-realisation in a new, transparent form of social unity, in which nature, both physical and social, comes under their control’.” If these conclusions are correct, as I take them to be, then Marx’s project has to be considered on its merits rather than as the necessary source of the totalitarianism practised in his name.

The next three chapters deal with the ‘Ethical Marxism’ referred to in the title. The focus of Chapter 2 is Marx’s conception of human essence and its alienation in the capitalist mode of production. The argument as to whether his humanist philosophy was discarded by 1846 or remained an implicit part of his theory of history and later his theory of exploitation is by now a very old one. However, it is worth revisiting with a sharper focus on the question of whether Marx’s early conception of human essence was retained, at least implicitly, in his later work. Chapter 3 examines the issues raised by Marx’s disdain for moral argument, and in particular his refusal to countenance a socialist conception of justice. I will argue that the key to understanding Marx’s ethical position is to be found in his persistent attachment to the philosophy and culture of Ancient Greece, and that this helps to throw light on his ideas of justice and freedom and his vision of communist society.

Chapter 4 concentrates on the contributions of Marcuse and Fromm, whose work was derided by orthodox Marxist-Leninists on the grounds that they disregarded the idea of class struggle. I will argue that they extended Marxian concepts in an original and searching way and helped to provide theoretical support for new forms of appositional consciousness. Although their contributions to political theory may be regarded as either tentative or utopian, they have the merit of reaching out to emerging emancipatory movements while retaining the Marxian commitment to a classless society free from alienation.

The second part of the book deals mainly with the ‘Radical Critics’ aspect of the title, covering some recent criticisms which, while acknowledging that Marx was committed to a normative conception of human essence, deem it deficient as a basis for contemporary emancipatory politics. Chapter 5 deals with two recent philosophical criticisms of Marx’s production-oriented view of human nature, from Jurgen Habermas and André Gorz. For Habermas, Marx’s concentration on the paradigm of production blinds him to the importance of other factors which contribute to the development of human rationality, factors which can be analysed properly only within a discrete paradigm of communication. Habermas recognises the ethical thrust of Mar-x’s humanism, but considers it inadequate for explaining how and why the cause of human freedom can be advanced. Gorz also recognises that Marx’s work is infused with a normative conception of human nature, but for him it carries authoritarian implications. Both Habermas and Gorz consider that the ‘system’ or ‘megamachine’ of contemporary capitalist society is an anonymous power which is beyond the sort of control which Marx envisaged in his ethic of reappropriating the human essence. I will argue that their abandonment of the Marxian dialectic is done on very shaky grounds, and although their political conclusions are quite different, in neither case do we find a more insightful understanding of the potential for emancipation than that available in the ethical Marxist perspective.

Chapter 6 examines important feminist criticisms of Marx’s humanism. Alison Jaguar and Elizabeth Mise have both identified the importance of production for Marx in his normative conception of human essence, but they argue that this systematically downgrades women, whose own production of human beings is implicitly consigned to the sphere of the ‘natural’ rather than the distinctively human. In failing to look at the reproduction of people while analysing the reproduction of capital, Marx overlooks the specific place of women in the capitalist mode of production and inadvertently smuggles in a male-centred view of human emancipation. I will argue that it is possible to answer these criticisms without disowning Marx’s theoretical framework, provided that the idea of human emancipation is elucidated in such a way as to recognise the importance of difference. Chapter 7 explores objections from political ecology to Marx’s alleged anthropocentric treatment of non-human nature in general and other animals in particular. Particular attention will be paid to the arguments of British philosopher Teed Renton, who has sought to transcend the apparently unbridgeable divide between the anthropocentricism imputed to Marx and the ecocentrist standpoint of political ecology. I am sympathetic towards Benton’s conclusions, but I think that his attempt to reconstruct Marx’s humanism to make it more sensitive to the concerns of political ecology accepts too readily the ecological criticisms of Marx’s work. In particular I will defend Marx’s view of the human-animal distinction and argue that the ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ thesis at the heart of political ecology was present in nuce in Marx’s work.

The conclusion will attempt three things. First, to summarise the ethical content of Marx’s thought, to question the reasons for his own rejection of, ethical discourse, and to consider how and why his ethic has been developed in ethical Marxism. Second, to locate ethical Marxism in the history of ethical theory; here I will use Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue as a point of reference. Finally, in keeping with the spirit of Marx’s project, I will proceed to link theory with practice. What implications does the ethical Marxist standpoint carry for emancipatory politics? In an era of capitalist triumphalism, does it make any sense to keep alive the vision of a global society free from exploitation and oppression?

2 The Essentialist Marx

Walking upright, this distinguishes men from animals, and it cannot yet be done. It exists only as a wish, the wish to live without exploitation and masters (Ernst Bloch).

‘Alienation’ was the dominant motif of Marx’s first foray into the political economy of capitalism in 1844, and he specifies three aspects. Workers are alienated from the product of their labour, from the process of production, from their ‘species being’ or ‘essential nature’, and, as a consequence of these three aspects, humans are alienated from one another. Alienation from ‘species being’ carries ethical connotations, for it assumes some notion of human essence, asserts a rupture from it, and suggests that we ought to be at one with our essence. What flows from this is a rhetoric denouncing the dehumanisation of the worker, and a commitment to communism as the struggle for the reconciliation of existence with essence. I take this to be the ethical foundation for his entire social theory. Despite the fact that he eschewed moral argument, his work is infused with a normative strain, and his goal of communist society envisions the realisation of human freedom as the flowering of human cooperative potential. This chapter will examine the origins and early development of this conception of human essence and will attempt to show how it became embedded in his theories of historical development and exploitation.


Filling in confessional questionnaires about personal likes and dislikes was a popular pastime in middle-class Victorian England, and Marx’s answers give us an amusing insight into his character.’ For instance, he cites as his favourite maxim ‘Nihil humani a me alienum puto’ (I believe that nothing human is alien to me),’ as his favourite motto ‘De omnibus dubitandum’ (doubt everything), as his favourite poets Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, and as his favourite prose writers Diderot, Lessing, Hegel and Balzac. He rated ,servility’ his most hated vice. These responses present almost an ideal-type of a nineteenth-century classically-educated humanist, and in this section I will look at how this humanism was developed in his writings in the period 1843-45.

Marx gave a succinct account of his intellectual development in the famous 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in which he admits that his university studies in philosophy and history left him at a disadvantage when it came to tackling social issues in his first paid employment as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842-43. Using the collapse of the newspaper as an opportunity to try to remedy the deficiencies in his knowledge, he returned to the study of Hegel, whose philosophy he had first got to grips with some six years earlier. [Letter to his Father, 1937] This time he was concerned with the justification of the Prussian political system which had been causing him so many problems. He wrote A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, of which only the Introduction was published in his lifetime. This ‘critical re-examination’ caused him to conclude that legal relations or political forms could be properly understood neither within their own terms nor in terms of the general development of ideas. The origins of law and politics had to be sought in civil society, the totality of the material conditions of life, and the ‘anatomy’ of this civil society was to be uncovered by political economy. [A Contribution o the Critique of Political Economy, Part 1] This signalled the beginning of his lifetime study of capitalism, the first fruits of which were the unpublished Paris manuscripts of 1844, including the Comments on James Mill and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Within two years, with the help of Engels, Marx had arrived at the overall theory of historical development which later became known as historical materialism. The two friends wrote up their attempt to ‘settle accounts with our former philosophic conscience’ during 1845-46, but the manuscript of The German Ideology was rejected by a publisher and they were obliged to settle for the rewards of its chief purpose, self-clarification.’ [ibid.]

It is evident from Marx’s own account that profound changes in his outlook occurred around 1845, and arguments have raged as to whether the Marx of 1846 retained or rejected some or all of the humanist positions adopted in the preceding years. This issue will be addressed later in the chapter, but for now let us examine how Marx developed his philosophical conception of human essence and its alienation in the early works. By the end of, 1843 he had expressed his commitment to communism and even nominated the social class which would lead the way to human emancipation. In the Introduction to his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right he identified the proletariat as the class with the unique capacity to liberate the whole of society through the act of liberating itself. In modern society it represented ‘the complete loss of man’, and it could liberate itself only through the ‘complete re-winning of man’. [ibid.] What was this ‘man’ who had been lost and needed to be re-won? At this moment, Marx’s humanism was heavily in the debt of Ludwig Feuerbach, who had gained renown on the strength of his critique of religion and Hegel’s idealism and whose work had such an impact in radical circles in Germany in the early 1840s that Engels later commented that ‘we were all Feuerbachians for a moment’. [Ludwig Feuerbach & the End of Classical German Philosophy] We have on record Marx’s own appreciation of Feuerbach in two letters, written in October 1843 and August 1844. The 1844 letter is effusive in its praise, but it also reveals that Marx, in describing Feuerbach’s work as ‘a philosophical basis for socialism’, was running far ahead of the hero of the hour. it took Feuerbach a further 27 years before he declared for socialism.

Feuerbach argued that the subject-object relationship in Hegel’s idealism needed to be inverted; real human beings were the authors of the world, not, as Hegel argued, the self-movement of Reason. In The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach presented the personality of God as the ‘projected personality of man’, an ideological construction by humanity which arose from a deep sense of what we yearned to be. This was an inversion of Hegelian speculative philosophy in which human beings were portrayed as acting out the historical progress of ‘Spirit’. The appeal to take responsibility for human authorship of the social world met with Marx’s enthusiastic approval, and he shared the fashion for focusing on religion as the prime example of alienated existence. Marx wrote that religion was the ‘fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality’, and as long as freedom was denied, religion would persist as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world . . . the opium of the people’. [Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right] Marx wanted to discover the material basis on which human emancipation could be achieved. Feuerbach’s humanism appeared to offer an exciting breakthrough, and indeed Marx’s favourite maxim seems to have been lifted from Feuerbach’s Principles of the Philosophy of the Future — ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.’ Feuerbach’s humanism was social, at least rhetorically, for he argued that ‘the essence of man is contained only in the community and unity of man with man’. [ibid.] Marx agreed that human nature was ‘the true community of men’, but he commented that workers lived in ‘disastrous isolation from this essential nature’. [Marginal Notes on th article by a Prussian] Marx’s enthusiasm for Feuerbach waned when he realised that the latter was unwilling to advance beyond the abstract restoration of humanity to its status as subject. Feuerbach left it to ‘time’ to mediate the contradictions of a deeply alienated world, rather than tackling the practical question of how the world could be changed so that humanity could express its essential freedom. The end of Marx’s Feuerbachian phase is signalled in 1845 by the Theses on Feuerbach, in which he parodies the closing aphorisms of the Philosophy of the Future. Feuerbach’s final aphorism complains that attempts to reform philosophy have changed its form but not its substance, and he calls for a new philosophy to serve the needs of mankind which is different in essence. Marx famously complains that the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, and calls for us to change it. [Theses on Feuerbach]

At this point we need to clarify what Marx meant by the discourse of alienation which permeates his texts of the 1843-45 period. The terms ‘alienation’ (Entäusserung) and ‘estrangement’ (Entfremdung) may be used interchangeably as both have descriptive and normative meanings. That is to say they involve description of a process of objectification or separation and also carry the implication that the loss of control experienced by workers wrongly deprives them of something. In its most emotive expression, used sparingly, Marx refers to the dehumanisation of the worker, with the implication that this system of production denies them something which is their due as human beings. Although the boldness of Feuerbach’s criticism of Hegel excited Marx, the richer philosophy of Hegel played a more significant role in the development of his own theory of alienation. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts he is full of appreciation for Hegel’s achievement in the Phenomenology of grasping the self-creation of man as a process, involving alienation and its transcendence through labour, with labour being the essence of man. However, Marx objects that the only labour which Hegel knew was ‘abstractly mental labour’ leading to a purely philosophical ‘self-confirmation’. For Marx, the result was a resolution of alienation in thought only, so that its supersession was, in reality, a confirmation of the alienation. Marx’s criticism turns on the formal and abstract manner of Hegel’s philosophy, but if it is possible to set that to one side what we have is a ringing endorsement of the old master. He enthused that in its depiction of alienation the Hegelian dialectic contained, albeit in a concealed and mystifying way, ‘all the elements of criticism, already prepared and elaborated in a manner rising far above the Hegelian standpoint’.

The task Marx now set himself was to demonstrate the origins of the antagonistic nature of modern society in the alienation inherent in the process of production. He had little first-hand experience of the life of workers, although we know that he attended meetings of French and German workers during his stay in Paris in 1844. It is at this juncture that Engels enters the picture. Although he had first met Marx in 1842, their friendship did not begin until their second meeting in Paris in the summer of 1844. Marx coedited the Deutsch-Französische jahrbücher, a journal which appeared only once, in February 1844, and he was strongly impressed by two contributions of Engels, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy and a review of Carlyle’s Past and Present. The work on political economy comprised a critique of the concepts used by the leading bourgeois theorists of the day in order to expose the extremes of wealth and poverty and the instability endemic in a system of production which he condemned as inhuman and immoral. The review of Carlyle was significant because it revealed some of the appalling social conditions which accompanied the development of factory production in Britain. Engels extended this empirical work in his masterpiece, The Condition of the Working-Class in England, written in 1844-45, which introduced Marx to many of the official sources that he used later in Capital. Engels gave Marx a glimpse of the grim reality of the emerging system, and Marx theorised its destructive consequences for the working class.

Marx had already rejected Hegel’s vindication of the Prussian state as a model for an ethical community. He agreed that human freedom could be realised only in a harmonious society, but he ruled out the idea that a society which preserved distinctions of social class could be made compatible with the pursuit of human freedom. In order to argue this point, and highlight the special role of the working class as the ultimate oppressed class, Marx used the concepts and forms of argument familiar to him and to the German intellectual milieu of which he was a part. In Chapter 3 I shall argue that Marx was heavily influenced by the culture of Greek antiquity, but for now let us note its significance for German humanism as a whole, as Horst Mewes has done:

in the uniquely German humanist conception of the universal education of mankind, Greek antiquity serves as more than an inspiration for serenity. The Greeks — particularly the Athenians — were instead the discoverers of the universal human essence, without having the practical means to realise that essence on a truly universal basis.

Two important aspects of this Greek heritage were the idea of the ethical community and the definition of what it was that distinguished us from other animals and therefore constituted our essence.

The Greeks held that humans were essentially social beings, and that only in the process of living together in harmony could their human essence be expressed. Marx expresses this at length in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, reiterating it in the Grundrisse and the first volume of Capital by reference to Aristotle’s idea of man as a zoon politikon (political or social animal). The commitment to the creation of a harmonious community was an ethical one because only through this could the human essence be fulfilled, and this was the only way in which people could achieve goodness’. In Greek thought, this idea of goodness carried both functional and ethical meanings, involving practical accomplishment as well as a ‘good’ disposition.

The second aspect of Greek thought which was accepted by both Feuerbach and Marx was establishing the human essence by asking what it was that distinguished us from other animals. Aristotle did -this, asserting that it was peculiar to man to be able to perceive good and evil, and although perfected man was the best of animals, when isolated from law and justice ‘he is the worst of all’. Feuerbach suggested that the difference lay not simply in man being a thinker, but rather that he is not a particular being, like the animals, but a ‘universal’ being, not ‘limited and restricted’ but ‘unlimited and free’. The senses of animals are often more developed, he argued, but the senses of humans are not in ‘bondage to needs’, and indeed humans even possessed the ability to make the senses the subject of scientific inquiry. In the Manuscripts Marx agrees with Feuerbach that we are ‘universal’ beings in comparison with other animals, but he goes further in focusing on production, the ability which people have to create products for each other in a consciously planned way, not necessarily dictated by immediate physical need:

In creating a world of objects by his practical activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species being ... animals also produce ... but an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. [Estranged Labour]

Truly human production involves creating with others and for others, in the process demonstrating our volition. Indeed, according to Marx we produce freely only when the production is not demanded by our survival needs, as when creating objects ‘in accordance with the laws of beauty’. [Estranged Labour] For Marx, then, we would be truly free only if we undertook social production which was not necessitated by physical want brought on by hunger, cold, fear and such like. Other animals do not have this capacity and their needs are therefore different, but humans, if denied their quintessential capacity by the system of production, are deprived of their freedom.

We shall return to the problems raised by Marx’s distinction between humans and other animals in Chapter 7, but for now let us simply note what he is attempting to say about what makes us specifically human. Conscious- social life activity is what defines our species, but alienated labour transforms our human essence into a mere means to our existence. Work is experienced as deadening compulsion, with the worker feeling free only in functions such as eating, drinking and making love, which, taken abstractly, are animal functions. [Estranged Labour] The fact that these functions are shared with animals does not mean that they are not also human needs which are being met, but Marx is appalled by the fact that our quintessential capacity of social creativity offers no sense of freedom to the worker. Marx talks about the workers losing their freedom ‘in the service of greed’ and of being ‘depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine’. [Wages of Labour] He uses the simile of man’s reduction to a machine three times in as many pages in the Manuscripts, and it recurs in the Manifesto of the Communist Party and the first volume of Capital. [p. 799] This perversion of human potential is achieved through the medium of money, which, raised to omnipotence, accomplishes the confounding and confusing of all natural human qualities’ and turns the world upside-down. It is not simply the workers who are alienated in the despotism of the money economy, it is the entire society.

The irony is that the same system of production which denies human freedom to all those dependent on it simultaneously exhibits the immense capacity of human creativity. Marx conceives the development of industry in dialectical terms, as presenting both the ‘open book of man’s essential powers’ and the simultaneous perversion of that essence through alienation. The development of technology opens the way for human emancipation by offering the prospect of material abundance, but its immediate effect is the ‘furthering of the dehumanisation of man’. The achievements of modern production were testament to human creative capability and provided the material possibility for a life without scarcity, but for those who lived by the sale of their labour power there was little or no experience of creativity or freedom.

Marx always remained cautious about specifying precisely how human freedom would be expressed if capitalism were replaced by communist society. He had written to Ruge that they had no business in ‘constructing the future and settling everything for all times’. [Marx to Ruge, September 1843] However, he gives some pointers in his early writings. In the passages concluding the Comments on James Mill, after lamenting that under capitalism human communication was conducted through the ‘estranged language of material values’, he goes on to consider what it would look like if we carried out production as human beings, that is, if we produced things for use rather than for profit. The products would be ‘so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature’, a reciprocal relationship in which work would be a ‘free manifestation of life’. In the Manuscripts he described the abolition of private property as ‘the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities’. This somewhat romantic view of how production might be experienced may have been influenced by Charles Fourier and his utopian vision of travail attractif (attractive work). Marx was familiar with his work and followed Fourier in deeming the relationship between men and women to be the supreme test of humanity’s whole level of development. in modern society, wrote Marx, the position of women as the ‘spoil and handmaid of communal lust’ reflected the ‘infinite degradation’ of human existence. Only when this relationship became ‘natural’ and ‘human’ could man claim to be a social being. Marx then portrays communism as ‘the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man ... the complete return of man to himself as a social being’. [Private Property and Communism] Later in the Manuscripts he introduces a ‘stages’ idea of emancipatory development, with communism being the first act the ‘negation of the negation’ — leading to socialism, the ultimate goal of human development. [Private Property and Communism]

Many of the themes established in the Manuscripts saw the light of day with the publication in 1845 of The Holy Family, the first product of the Marx-Engels collaboration. Its main purpose was to criticise the and abstractions of their former associates in the Young Hegelians, now denounced as the most dangerous enemy of ‘real humanism’ in Germany. [Foreword to The Holy Family] The alienation theme is restated, and here it is acknowledged that the propertied class as well as the proletariat suffer from the same alienation. However, whereas the former feel strengthened and at ease with this alienation, the ‘inhuman’ condition of the workers is presented as a ‘contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature’. [The Holy Family, Chapter IV] Once again the plight of the proletariat is described as the loss of humanity, recoverable only by revolution which will resolve the inhuman conditions of life of the entire society. Marx goes further and claims that a large part of the French and German working class has already developed a consciousness of its historic emancipatory task. Marx also restates his view that the general position of women in society was ‘inhuman’, this time explicitly endorsing Fourier’s position. [The Holy Family, Chapter VIII] In The Holy Family Marx also develops his criticism of the illusory nature of freedom in civil society. It appears to offer the greatest freedom and independence to the individual, no longer curbed by common bonds, but actually this uncontrolled surrender to the market produced a new form of ‘fully developed slavery and inhumanity’. [The Holy Family, Chapter VI] This process of unmasking was to become central to his critique of political economy, in which he strove to penetrate the surface appearance of the ‘exchange of equivalents’ in capitalism in order to expose its inexorable and socially destructive logic.


I will now argue that Marx’s conception of human essence and its alienation becomes implicit in his social theory. By his social theory I refer to his theory of historical development (historical materialism) and his theory of exploitation (the theory of surplus value). Two issues are of special interest when considering the fate of the concept of human essence. The first is the interrelation of Marx’s sixth thesis of the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), the statement most frequently cited by those who argue that Marx dropped the concept, an interpretation which has been meticulously rebutted by Geras in Marx and Human Nature. The second issue is raised by Philip Kain, who argues for a strong ethical content to Marx’s work, one which was developed early in his work and rediscovered later. According to Kain, Marx specifically rejected the concept of essence and the idea of alienation from species-being in The German Ideology. This interpretation contrasts starkly with those of Rodney Peffer and Gary Browning, both of whom argue that the work is rich with Marx’s moral views.

The sixth of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach asserts that ‘the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual’, but that ‘in its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations’. It goes on to chide Feuerbach for abstracting his view of human essence from the historical process, thereby presupposing an abstract, isolated individual. Finally, he suggests that Feuerbach’s view of essence reduces it to an abstract notion of ‘species’ as some sort of ‘inner, mute, general character which unites the many individuals in a natural way’. In Marx’s judgement, Feuerbach’s conception of man is ahistorical and, as a consequence and despite his own claims, asocial. As such Marx regarded it as inadequate to the task of constructing a theoretical framework for understanding the development of human existence and the possibility of its emancipation. in fact the sixth thesis supports the interpretation that Marx maintained his view of the human essence of creative social activity, for it is manifested in actually existing society (’the ensemble of social relations'), albeit in an upside-down way. The fact that this essence is in practice denied to the mass of individuals in modern society -prompts Marx to call for the establishment of ‘human society, or associates humanity’ in the tenth thesis, and the injunction to change the world in the eleventh. With Feuerbach, the human essence is reduced to the ideal of a shared common consciousness, whereas for Marx it has to be expressed in common practice which can transform itself into cooperative control of the world. The idea of the ‘universal being’ means that we alone have a knowledge of our history, and although it is evident that Feuerbach wanted humans to claim control over that history, his theory is lacking when it comes to understanding historical development. The Theses constitute a protest against the limitations of Feuerbach’s ‘contemplative materialism’, but there are no grounds to infer from this that Marx rejected the idea of human essence per se.

The Theses on Feuerbach represent a decisive move away from the philosophical discourse which Marx had been steeped in since his schooldays. The criticisms which he had levelled against Hegel’s idealist method were now to be extended to the whole practice of philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge. Marx’s statement in The German Ideology that ‘philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as onanism and sexual love’ [The German Ideology, Ch. 3.6.C] typified his impatience with his erstwhile intellectual milieu. From now on he was to display irritation with modes of thought which did not confront the material causes of social reality. His tone is now resolutely empirical, but not empiricist — the facts do not talk for themselves.

Part one of The German Ideology sets out a theory of historical development which was to become the theoretical framework of Marx’s studies. When setting out the premises for this theory he reverts to the question of what distinguishes humans from other animals:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. [The German Ideology]

Historical development is then posited as the progression of different ways of reproducing material life; at this stage he identified tribal, ancient-communal, and feudal epochs of production. In each epoch ideas of all sorts, including ideas about politics and morality, were conditioned by the ‘development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these’. [The German Ideology] In this view, Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all the rest of ideology as well as forms of consciousness corresponding to these, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their actual world, also their thinking and the products of their thinking. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness. [The German Ideology]

Decisive historical change occurs not because men have great inspirations, but because the forces of production come into contradiction with the forms of intercourse (in the 1859 Preface this is changed to ‘relations of production'). [The German Ideology]

In capitalism the particular interest is cleaved from the common interest, the socialisation which takes place in production is not undertaken voluntarily, and alienation prevails. Marx reiterates his conviction that only under communism can alienation be overcome, but when using the word (Entfremdung) he displays his recently acquired aversion to philosophical discourse by noting ironically that he is using a term ‘which will be comprehensible to the philosophers. Marx argued that labour in capitalism was devoid of all ‘self activity’, but that in communist society ‘self activity coincides with material life’, leading to ‘the development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting-off of all natural limitations’. The linguistic shift sees ‘human essence’ relegated and ‘self activity’ preferred, which is similar to the ‘conscious life activity’ which appeared in the Manuscripts. The idea of its ‘appropriation’ is replaced by the commitment to communism as a practical political project. The language is altered, but the core concepts of alienation and its supersession remain; the philosophical premises have been subsumed into his social theory.

Let us turn to Kain’s claim that in The German Ideology Marx rejected the concept of essence as well as the idea of species being and our alienation from it.” Although he provides many citations in support of this position, they all come down to instances of Marx criticising what he considered to be the sloppy thinking of Feuerbach, Stirner and Karl Grun, without involving a retraction of the conception of human essence set down in 1844. For example, when discussing Feuerbach, Marx was clearly annoyed by his statement that ‘the being of a thing or man is at the same time its or his essence’. For Marx, this implied that if millions of workers are angry with their living conditions and, therefore, their ‘being’ does not in the least correspond to their ‘essence’, then they are obliged to quietly accept their misfortune. In Marx’s view, the workers or communists think quite differently ‘and will prove this in time, when they bring their “being” into harmony with their “essence” in a practical way, by means of revolution’. The substance of Marx’s point is that merely recognising that the social world is a human creation offered little hope for those who were forced to lead inhuman lives. It pointed to the deficiency of Feuerbach’s view of human essence as ‘universal being’ with its emphasis on the consciousness of humans rather than their practice. The phrasing and use of inverted commas in Marx’s retort reveal his conviction that the whole language of being and essence was inappropriate for exposing the causes of distress and the possibility of its resolution.

But it also affirms his adherence to his earlier position in which communism was conceived as a struggle for the appropriation of the human essence. The philosophical position becomes immanent to the theory of revolutionary practice, or ‘praxis’.

Part three of The German Ideology comprises the bulk of the entire manuscript and is devoted to a detailed criticism of Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, which was destined to have an enduring appeal to individualistic anarchists throughout the world. Once again Marx is scornful of the ‘essence’ discourse in his critique of Stirner, but this is expressed in the form of detailed criticisms of Stirner’s faulty logic rather than a rejection of the philosophical category per se. Marx makes it clear that he prefers communism as a ‘practical movement’ to an intellectual debate over the concept of ‘essence,’ but it is Stirner’s misunderstanding of communism which is the real point at issue. Later, when lambasting Stirner’s argument that ‘inhumanity’ could be overcome by the individual rethinking his attitude, Marx complains that by doing this the ‘inhuman being’ is made to disappear and ‘there is no longer any measure for individuals’. In this way the ‘crippling and enslavement’ which afflict individuals in modern society were rendered by Stirner as expressions of that person’s individuality. Marx was denouncing a wholly subjective view of human essence, but he was also defending the view that some notion of ‘humanity’ was needed to measure the development of human freedom.

In the discussion of the work of the German ‘True Socialists’ he returns to the attack against their attachment to the concept of the essence of man, on the basis that they were masking ignorance and vacillation with high-sounding philosophical phrases .69 He concludes that it is ‘necessary to resist all phrases which obscure and dilute still further the realisation that communism is totally opposed to the existing world order’ .70 At most we can take this to be a warning that the German philosophical discourse was woolly and obstructed theoretical clarity; it does not infer a rejection of the substantive philosophical positions adopted by Marx in 1844. Similarly, in the ‘Circular Against Kriege’, written while they were working on The German Ideology, Marx and Engels ridicule Kriege for his misuse of concepts such as species and community, with no implication that the concepts themselves had lost their meaning. Kain admits that Marx explicitly refers to the overcoming of alienation, but takes it to mean only alienation from the product and the process of production, not from species being. Yet it was precisely this aspect of the alienation thesis which was original to Marx, compared with Hegel or Feuerbach, and his continued use of the clearly normative Entfremdung would indicate no substantive retraction of the earlier position. Indeed Marx looked set to embark on an elaboration of the overcoming of alienation from species being by introducing the subject of ‘the reshaping of men by men’, but at this point the manuscript breaks off. If it is accepted that the alienation thesis in all respects is retained in The German Ideology, what does this mean for our understanding of the theory of historical development which is first set down there? We are entitled to conclude that the teleology on offer is not one of the inevitable replacement of successive modes of production leading to the necessity of communist society. Marx had warned against notions of historical inevitability the previous year in The Holy Family:

History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that. . . ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his own aims. [Holy Family, Chapter VI]

What we are faced with, then, is a protracted struggle for the realisation of human freedom. In capitalist society it is possible to achieve political freedom, which provides the arena in which the class struggles can be fought out, holding out the promise of an end to alienation. Only in effecting the revolution against capitalism can individuals develop into ‘complete individuals’ who cast off all natural limitations. [Holy Family, Chapter VI] The social division of labour can be abolished only by people in community, only within the community can each individual achieve ‘the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions’, and only within the community does authentic personal freedom become possible .76 This is, in effect, the promise of the ethical community. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels describe the goal of communists to be ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’, while in the 1859 Preface the abolition of capitalism is conceived as marking the end of the ‘prehistory of human society’. Human history proper can begin only when that which defines our humanity, our social creativity, is brought under voluntary cooperative control.


Although Marx began work in political economy in 1844 he did not publish his first book in the field until 1859, and the fully developed theory of exploitation did not see the light of day until the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867. However, despite the years of immersion in the texts of political economy and mountains of official reports, there is strong evidence that the idea of alienation remains central to his analysis of what is going on in the exchange of commodities and the creation of surplus value. A key text for understanding the philosophical underpinnings of his analysis of exploitation is the Grundrisse, the notebooks containing draft material written in 1857-8. However, it is interesting to note a passage from Wage Labour and Capital (1849) in which the alienation thesis is re-stated in a presentation which saw Marx writing for the first time like a confident political economist rather than a philosopher in foreign territory. Labour is described as ‘the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life’, but after selling his life-activity to the capitalist it becomes ‘only a means to enable him to exist’. For the worker labour has become ‘a sacrifice of his life’, a mere commodity, and ‘life begins for him where this activity ceases, at table, in the public house, in bed’. [Wage Labour and Capital, Chapter 1] If the characterisation of labour as the manifestation of the worker’s life is to be more than a vacuous tautology, then Marx must mean that labour in some sense is what defines us as human beings. As we have seen, he means conscious, social labour, but in capitalist production the conscious and social aspects have been alienated. Capitalism is presented as simultaneously unfolding the creative power of humanity while denying all creative control to the direct producers.

In the 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse Marx reaffirmed the irreducible sociality of individuals, in contrast to the liberal fixation with the atomised individual. He dismissed the individualist premises of Smith and Ricardo as the ‘unimaginative fancies of the eighteenth century’, and argued that they were not simply attempting to offer a view of natural man but were pushing a view of the abstract individual as an ‘anticipation of bourgeois society’. [Grundrisse, Introduction] Relationships between abstract free individuals were taken to be the ideal form, and so were projected into the past as something ,natural’. Marx argued that in fact it was only in the eighteenth century that society as such came to be regarded by individuals as a means towards private ends. He regarded the idea of production by isolated individuals outside society as being as ‘preposterous’ as the idea that language could develop without individuals living together. In this respect he was following Aristotle, who had written in the Politics that ‘the man who is isolated ... is no part of the polis, and must therefore be either a beast or a god’. Marx was not opposed to the development of individuality, although this position has often been attributed to him. Rather he was convinced that the vast majority of people would be able to express their individuality only when we organise our production in a cooperative way, a view endorsed eloquently by Oscar Wilde later in the century.

Marx sometimes referred to the civil society of market competition as the bellum omnium contra omnes, the condition of the war of each against all imputed to the state of nature by Thomas Hobbes. As we have noted, the perspective adopted by Marx stood firmly against this form of individualism, as it did for Hegel and also for Rousseau. It is important to note the significance of their view of the individual as a social being even at the risk of labouring the obvious, because the individualistic premises of classical liberal theory are deeply ingrained in Western science. For example, in a recent criticism of Darwinism in social anthropology, Tim Ingold pleads for a mode of human understanding that starts from the premises of our engagement with the world, rather than our detachment from it. He argues that ‘social relations, far from being the mere resultant of the association of discrete individuals, each independently “wired up” for cooperative or altruistic behaviour, constitute the very ground from which human existence unfolds’. Ingold describes the implications of this view for the structure of evolutionary theory as 1 ‘profound’, evidently unaware that the individualistic perspective is a relatively recent one in the history of world philosophy. It was rejected by Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, and does not figure in non-Western conceptions of our place in the world.

Returning to the question of the continuity between the texts of 1844 and 1857, in a number of cases the same illustrations were used in support of identical arguments. The first chapter of the Grundrisse deals with money, and Marx repeats a quotation from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens used in 1844 to support the argument that money equates the incommensurate: ‘Thou visible God, that solder’st close impossibilities’. The analogy with God as a human creation which ends up controlling the creators is found in both the Grundrisse and the Comments on James Mill, and money is described as an ‘alien social power standing above them’ in both texts. This idea of the ‘alien power’ confronting the worker is developed further in the chapter on capital, in which Marx argues that when the worker exchanges his labour capacity with the capitalist he ‘surrenders its creative power, like Esau who gave up his birthright for a mess of pottage’, a process through which his own creative power establishes itself as the power of capital, ‘an alien power’. Although there is only a single instance of Marx returning to the concept of ‘species being’, it is clear that he sees the development of exchange as both historically destructive of natural voluntary cooperation and obstructive of-a higher stage of cooperation. Later in the text he talks about labour’s realisation being at the same time its ‘de-realisation’, because all the ‘potentialities resting in living labour’s own womb’ come to exist as realities outside it and alien to it.

Marx links alienation with the historical development of capitalism as a necessary stage before human freedom can be achieved. In the chapter on money he argues that universally developed individuals exerting communal control over their social relationships were not products of nature but of history. Freedom can be achieved only by developing the conditions produced by capitalism, only after going through the ‘universality of the estrangement of individuals from themselves and from others’.” For Marx it was as ridiculous to yearn for a notion of a return to natural ‘fullness’ as to believe that the present ‘complete emptiness’ must persist forever. In the chapter on capital he argues that the wealth and knowledge of society advance only in such a way ‘that the working individual alienates himself’, but capitalism’s universal development of the productive forces also created the basis for the emergence of the ‘universal development of the individuals’. The barrier of alienation thrown up by the system is not a ‘sacred limit’ because the producers can achieve ‘comprehension’ of the historical process and the conviction that it can be controlled, but only at a stage when existing conditions of production are evidently dysfunctional. Perhaps our present concerns about environmental degradation provide the clearest indication that this stage has been reached, more than a century after Marx’s death. He conceives real freedom, presupposing social control over the production process, as ‘self-realisation’.” The Grundrisse presents a picture of Marx struggling to weave his philosophic conception of human development into the concepts to be used in the analysis of how capitalism works. So, for example, alienation is explicitly linked with the creation of value. Although the analysis of the process of exploitation and its systemic reproduction is far advanced from the writings of 1844, the philosophic underpinnings are intact.

Further confirmation of the philosophic commitment to the conception of what constitutes our distinctive humanity is found in Theories of Surplus Value, written in 1862, in which Marx decries the ‘sentimental’ opponents of Ricardo for opposing production as the objective of life, thereby forgetting that ‘production for its own sake means nothing but the development of human productive forces, in other words the development of the richness of human nature as an end in itself’. Marx adds immediately that under capitalism this development of the capacities of the human species takes place at the cost of the majority of human individuals and whole human classes until ‘in the end it breaks through this contradiction and coincides with the development of the individual’. He was impatient with those who moralised about Ricardo’s ‘ruthlessness’ while failing to appreciate his ‘scientific honesty’. Without the latter it was impossible to understand the dynamics of capitalist production and identify its inner contradictions. For Marx, knowledge was power.

For those who approach volume one of Capital in order to extract a purely technical economic argument, the first part poses considerable problems. Even though some of the philosophic content was excised from the second edition, which is now the one almost exclusively referred to, there is still a distinctive humanist philosophy at work in the discussion of the commodity. It prompted Louis Althusser to recommend starting the book at part two (chapter four), but such an approach not only rides roughshod over Marx’s intentions but promotes a division of labour within knowledge which is, I would argue, part of the problem of the world which Marx wanted to change. Marx’s work begins with the contradiction between use value and exchange value, resolved by money, but resolved only in such a way that the basic contradiction was carried forward in the logic of the system. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Marx had argued that a commodity was based on ‘a complex of contradictory premises’ which centred on its dual aspects of use value and exchange value."’ In Capital he argues that the contradictions inherent in the exchange of commodities were not abolished by the further development of the system, but merely given ‘room to move’.

The section of the first chapter on “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret” argues that in commodity production social relations were reflected as ‘objective characteristics of the products of labour’ and the definite social relation between men themselves assumes ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things’. He likens the process to religion, where ‘the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race’. As in the writings of 1844, Marx describes the systematic separation of the producer from the plan, process and outcome of production, that is to say the transformation of the social process of production into an alien power. Money plays a key role in facilitating this alienated society, in which ‘men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way’."’ In substance this is a re-presentation of the alienation thesis, despite Marx’s reluctance to use the term, and later in Capital he talks about the alienation of the worker from his labour and his product and describes capital as ‘an alien power that dominates and exploits’.

In an emotive passage in chapter 25 Marx recapitulates the alienation theme and expresses the fate of the worker as a dialectical negation of creativity. Under capitalism all methods for raising the social productivity of labour result in the increased insecurity of the worker, and the means for the development of production ,undergo a dialectical inversion’ so that they become means of domination and exploitation. The worker is distorted into ‘a fragment of a man’, degraded to an appendage of the machine and tormented by the content of his labour. All intellectual stimulation which might otherwise have been found in the labour process is removed as technology is incorporated in it as a seemingly independent power. The worker is condemned to a lifetime of toil and misery and whole families are dragged ‘beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital’. Capitalism presents the extremes of wealth at one pole and the accumulation of ‘misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalisation and moral degradation at the opposite pole’. From this rhetoric of fragmented or crippled humanity we are entitled to assume, as Fromm has argued, that Marx has a notion of a ‘whole’ man, a self-realised being whose essence is no longer alienated.

In a footnote in Capital criticising Bentham’s theory of utility Marx distinguishes between human nature ‘in general’ and human nature as ‘modified in each epoch’. Marx’s theory of historical development presents a framework for examining how human nature is modified in the course of the production and reproduction of material life. It helps to counter conservative conceptions such as those of Hobbes, for whom men were naturally self-serving power maximisers motivated by mistrust and fear. Marxists have been unwilling to countenance a conception of human nature ‘in general’, or human essence, because to do so might be seen to be offering an equally arbitrary view of what we are really like. However, Marx does have a conception of human essence, materially grounded in our productive achievements and illustrated through the comparison with non-human animals, first set down in 1844 and repeated in the first volume of Capital. He introduces his discussion of the labour process by arguing that although humans initially laboured instinctively at the animal level, through their social interaction with their environment they develop the exclusively human characteristic of conscious life activity whereby they are able to plan their work. Distinctively human activity can be viewed as collective endeavour, or creative social activity. In a famous passage he argued that although spiders produced rather like weavers, and bees built cells with greater skill than many architects, ‘what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax’. Marx’s purpose in the chapter on the labour process was to show how money was transformed into capital through the extraction of surplus value in the process of exploitation. The controlling power in the labour process shifts from the producer to capital, which he depicts as an ‘animated monster’."’ The formally free individuals enter a contract which deprives the producers of the freedom to exercise the creative powers which define their humanity. Marx reverts to the humanist discourse when he conjures the image of a cooperative, planned society, in which the worker ‘strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species’. Here Marx comes close to his 1844 expression of communism as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for humanity.


The ethical question which runs beneath the surface of Marx’s work concerns how we ought to live. Marx’s work shows that capitalist society cannot produce an ethical community because it perverts the human essence of social creativity and prevents the development of human freedom. The ‘pre-history’ of humanity has taken us to the point at which the structures which thwart human freedom can be challenged and replaced. However, to rely on moral argument would not, in his opinion, move us closer to understanding how and why successive modes of production have kept the mass of humanity in various forms of enslavement. Nor, Marx thought, would moral entreaties assist in removing the principal impediments to achieving human freedom: private property and the protective political power of the bourgeoisie. Indeed his consistent opposition to explicitly moral discourse indicates that he considered the moralistic approach might well deflect from a full understanding of the revolutionary nature of the tasks ahead. When Marx wrote the Provisional Rules of the First International they contained a demand that members be committed to ‘truth, justice, and morality, as the basis of their conduct towards each other, and towards all men, without regard to colour, creed, or nationality’. However, in a letter to Engels he reveals that he was ‘obliged’ by the sub-committee to insert this sentence, as well as another referring to ‘right’ and ‘duty’, adding that ‘these are so placed that they can do no harm’. His rejection of moralising should not deter us from identifying the ethical dimension which is immanent in his social theory. ‘Alienation’ is not simply a descriptive term in his political economy, but a philosophical term indicating a rupture from our human essence. Its usage is a denunciation of the way we live. Its projected overcoming, in a society of free associated producers, is an ethical commitment to the creation of the good life. The commitment to communist society is an appeal to how we ought to live. The next chapter will attempt to shed further light on the nature and origins of Marx’s ethic, and what implications it holds for his conception of communist society.

3 Ethics Justice Freedom

To call cosmopolitan exploitation universal brotherhood is an idea that could only be engendered in the brain of the bourgeoisie (Marx). [Speech on the Question of Free Trade]

The idea that there is a strong ethical foundation built into Marx’s social theory raises a number of questions which will be confronted in this chapter. Marx’s own determination to shun ethical discourse has obscured this dimension of his thought, but this should not rule out its re-examination, especially in view of the fact that the revolutionary class consciousness which he confidently anticipated has largely failed to materialise. The ethic revolves around his conception of human essence as creative social activity, its alienation in capitalist society, and the commitment to its full realisation as human freedom in communist society. ...


Marx eschewed moral argument, yet there is undoubtedly moral force in his description of the process of exploitation. In recent years this tension has generated a number of debates in North America and Britain, and the major arguments have been discussed with great clarity by Norman Geras in the journal New Left Review. Geras argues that there is a ‘real and deep-seated inconsistency’ in Marx’s work between his ethical commitment and his hostility to moral argument. On the one hand, Marx argues that the process through which surplus value is produced is just, as each mode of production has norms of justice appropriate to it. For example, in the third volume of Capital he states that the content of capitalist contracts is just ‘so long as it corresponds to the mode of production and is adequate to it’, [Capital Volume III] and he makes the same point in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. In the first volume of Capital he specifically denies that an injustice has been done to the seller of labour power when the capitalist makes a profit, [Capital Volume I] or that the seller has been defrauded. [Capital Volume I] On the other hand, Marx condemns capitalism in moral terms which amount, in Geras’s view, to deeming it unjust. In various parts of the first volume of Capital he describes the extraction of surplus value as ‘robbing’, ‘stealing’, ,pumping booty’ out of the workers, and ‘embezzling’, [Capital Volume I] and elsewhere he refers to it ‘in plain language’ as ‘loot’ and ‘the theft of alien labour time. [Theories of Surplus Value, Grundrisse]

I am sympathetic with attempts to draw out the ethical content of Marx’s social theory, but I feel that Geras is wrong to designate the tension outlined above as a ‘pervasive contradiction’. Furthermore, I think it is possible to explicate Marx’s position without resorting to Geras’s conclusion that ‘Marx did think capitalism was unjust but did not think he thought so.” Nor do I accept Geras’s more substantial conclusion that Marx implicitly condemns capitalism as unjust by reference to a ‘generalised moral entitlement’ to control over the means of production, which, is, in effect, a natural right.

Geras argues that Marx makes trans-historical moral judgements while simultaneously holding the view that all principles of justice are specific to each mode of production and cannot be used to judge practices in other modes. A number of writers have argued that this does not necessarily involve a contradiction. George Brenkert, Steven Lukes, and Allen Wood have separately argued that Marx’s condemnation of capitalism rested on values such as freedom and self-actualisation, but not on a conception of justice based on eternal principles. Joe McCarney has argued that the moral language employed by Marx in describing exploitation need not necessarily be treated at the same theoretical level as the concept of justice. He suggests that in Marx’s work we can separate justice, as ‘relativised to a particular social order’, from evaluations which have ‘some element of trans-historical meaning’, for, after all, it is common enough to regard justice as ‘contextually bound and specifically juridical’.” I think that McCarney is fundamentally correct here, but Geras’s demand to see some evidence to support the alleged distinction between what is just and what is ethical is a reasonable request.

Geras, in his original article, outlines one way in which the alleged confusion on justice might be resolved. The buying and selling of labour power might be regarded as fair, but the extraction of surplus value which occurs on that basis renders the contract, in Marx’s words, a ‘mere semblance’ or ‘mere pretence’. Geras accuses Marx of resorting to ‘dialectical wizardry’ in arguing that equal exchange is transformed into unequal exchange. In the Grundrisse he proposes that ‘by a peculiar logic the right of property on the side of capital is dialectically transformed into the right to an alien product ... the right to appropriate alien labour without equivalent’. In the first volume of Capital he writes that ‘to the extent that commodity production, in accordance with its own immanent laws, undergoes a further development into capitalist production, the property laws of commodity production must undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become laws of capitalist appropriation’. Geras objects that the dialectic here only muddies the water, as the wage relation is either an exchange of equivalents and therefore just, or it is not, and ‘a thing cannot be its opposite’. He concludes that the confusion among commentators on this point is therefore ‘a fruit of Marx’s own prevarication’. This represents a major criticism of the coherence of Marx’s dialectical method. It is possible to defend Marx’s dialectic by referring to the essentialism which was discussed above. Philip Kain, in his consideration of the debate between Wood and Husami, focuses on the categories of essence and appearance and argues that Marx’s position is that capitalism is ‘just’ (Wood) at the level of appearance but at the level of essence it is ‘unjust’ (Husami). I think it wiser to go along with Marx’s refusal to accept that capitalism is unjust, but I am sure that he felt that ‘in essence’ capitalism obstructed the development of full human freedom. What does this mean? Capitalism operates on the basis of a formally free contract involving the purchase and sale of labour power. Behind the appearance of the exchange of equivalents is the essence of exploitation. In unmasking the extraction of surplus value hidden behind the rhetoric of the free exchange of equivalents, Marx shows how power is wrested from the producers and re-presented to them in the forms of money or capital as alien powers standing above them. The worker, when exchanging his labour capacity with the capitalist, ‘surrenders its creative power, like Esau who gave up his birthright for a mess of pottage’. The loss of freedom is inscribed in capitalism’s defining process, the extraction of surplus value arising from the purchase and sale of labour power. The further development of the system cannot resolve this contradiction but merely brings it to the point where the system itself becomes dysfunctional and a social revolution becomes a real historical possibility.

Marx is quite clear that capitalism is just, in the sense that legal justice or ‘right’ (Recht) ‘can never be higher than the economic structure and its cultural development which this determines’. How then, is it possible for Marx to inveigh against exploitation, which is clearly not, for him, a value-free term? One way in which he does this is effectively to expose the discrepancy between the claims made by liberals that the system is fair and just and the grim reality of class despotism. The point of describing the labour contract as both ‘just’ and ‘theft’ is to point up the gap between appearance and essence in the system and inspire its concrete resolution. This form of moral realism is shown in the quotation at the head of this chapter, and also in remarks made in that part of the Critique of the Gotha Programme dealing with ‘equal right’ in socialist society. Marx argues that capitalist distribution ‘is the only “fair” distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production’, just as he had written in the first draft of The Civil War in France that ‘every social form of property has “morals” of its own’.” In both instances the inverted commas imply the presence of a more adequate standard of fairness or morality. In the Critique Marx argues that under socialism, when private property has been abolished, ‘equal right’ would involve distribution to individuals according to an equal standard, labour, but as individuals are different in strength and ability, equal right would give unequal rewards. An important point here is that equal right in socialist society is considered an advance on bourgeois society because ‘principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads’.” In Marx’s view, under socialism equal right would cease to be a mere semblance and the standard by which the remuneration operated would be transparent. However, it would still be based on individual reward, with the possibility of creating different sorts of division in society. He prefers, as the distributive principle of the ‘higher phase, of communist society’ the formula ‘from each according to abilities to each according to needs’, presumably achievable through an agreed increase in the free provision of goods and services. His preference for the latter implicitly rests on a conviction that it is fairer than distribution based on individual reward. The question arises as to what standard of fairness Marx is appealing.

Sean Sayers has argued that Marx judged capitalism not by trans-historical standards but by socialist standards which develop within capitalism itself. He cites Marx’s comments in the third volume of Capital where he speculates that from the standpoint of a higher economic form of society’ private ownership of property will one day appear as absurd as slavery does in advanced capitalist societies. Sayers’ argument is in line with the essentialist and teleological perspective which Marx developed from his encounters with Ancient Greece and, of course, with Hegel, and the idea of progress is central to it. Geras objects that as soon as we introduce the idea of progress we necessarily invoke ‘transcendent criteria’ which enable us to compare one kind of society with another to see in which respects they are superior.” He argues that an appeal to progress does not provide a reason why something should be valued or fought for; why should socialism be regarded as superior?” He insists that if we were to argue that the socialist end of history was morally superior to capitalism we would have to provide ‘suitably general, ethically pertinent criteria’ for doing so. If we provide such criteria for progress we thereby offer ‘some universal evaluative standards’,” and disqualify ourselves from saying that Marx did not operate with such standards.

I have argued that Marx’s projected goal was the fulfilment of the human essence of social creativity, but the possibility of fully realising this goal cannot come about until certain conditions have been met. The problem with the demand for universal or trans-historical principles of justice is precisely that their formulation is supra-historical. That is to say our attention is moved away from the task of examining the specific historical development of moral ideas which Marx called for in The German Ideology. Sayers cites an interesting passage from the British Hegelian, Bradley in which he talks about the dilemma between universal and relative principles:

All morality is and must be ‘relative,’ because the essence of realisation is evolution through stages, and hence existence in some one stage is not final.... On the other hand, all morality is ‘absolute’ because in every stage the essence of man is realised, however imperfectly: and yet again the distinction of right in itself against relative morality is not banished, because, from the point of view of a higher stage, we can see that lower stages failed to realise the truth completely enough.... Yet ... the morality of every stage is justified for that stage; and the demand for a code of right in itself, apart from any stage, is seen to be the asking for an impossibility.

I think this qualified relativism is true for Marx, as well as Aristotle, Epicurus, and Hegel. To return to Geras’s claim that Marx is implicitly claiming a moral entitlement to social control of the means of production, it seems to me that Marx is not doing this, but allows for and undoubtedly hopes for a time when there is such a moral entitlement. In the meantime, he snipes away at the incoherence of the liberal conceptions of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Viewing Marx as a ‘qualified relativist’ certainly distances him from conventional moral theory, but his position is quite coherent. David Bakhurst has suggested that it has three aspects.” First it rejects the idea of eternal moral principles and insists that all normative codes are created and sustained by particular communities. Second, there are usually answers available to moral questions on the basis of our communal forms of practice; this helps us to understand why Marx can express indignation at bourgeois moral claims. Third, the ability to make moral judgements is a perceptual capacity which has its origin in socialisation and will develop with communal activity. Bakhurst’s interpretation has the advantage of accounting for Marx’s confidence in attacking the hypocrisy of bourgeois moral universalism without presenting an alternative universalism of a similar kind. The morality of a free society would have to be decided by that free society. This moral position is a ‘meta-ethical’ one which will not deliver a moral code or decision procedure for ethical judgement, which Bakhurst is rightly sceptical about.” The strength of this approach is that it reintegrates ethics into the constitution of the life of the community and allows for the emergence of an ethical spirit of the sort which Marx admired in Athenian democracy.


In The German Ideology Marx and Engels assert that communism was not ‘an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself’ but rather ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’.” This position indicated their determination to come down from the secular pulpit of German intellectual socialism and get on with the business of supporting the development of the political movement. It also reflects their impatience with utopian socialism’s practice of picturing the ideal society without considering how it could develop out of existing conditions. However, it can also be taken to mean that they thought that such a movement could develop without recourse to ideals. Geras, for example, chides Marx for apparently denying the role of ideals in the class struggle, in this passage from The Civil War in France:

The working class ... know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realise, but to set free elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.

Geras complains that in this passage Marx denies the validity of ideals, leaving only ‘the immanent movement and that is that’. Yet the process of ‘setting free’ elements of a higher form of society implies a multiplicity of choices and wholesale transformation, and is here presented as the only realisable ideal. In other words, setting free the elements of the new society is an ideal. Written on the heels of a calamity of such enormity that it would deter all but the boldest from entering political struggle, Marx wanted to assure the oppressed that they had more than pious hopes to rely on, and that their oppressors were not omnipotent. At the end of the text on the Paris Commune, Marx writes that ‘its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class’, presupposing not only a collective subject but one with a moral purpose, fired by a collective memory. The ‘exterminators’ of the Commune were to be ‘nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them’. Marx was well aware that moral motivation would be crucial to the development of revolutionary consciousness, but he played down moralism so as not to deflect from developing a rigorous appraisal of the real possibilities for social change. This stance is entirely understandable in the context of the battle of ideas taking place at the time, and in his own terms and in his own time his anti-moralism was quite coherent.

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts Marx described communism as ‘the riddle of history solved’."’ What did he mean by this enigmatic remark? It comes after stating that it would involve the ‘complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e. human) being — a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development’. The riddle, I think, can be rendered thus: ‘When can history become our history?’ History is our attempt to make sense of the past, to distinguish the essential from the unessential. It is a demonstration of the universal nature of the species, a quintessentially human act. It is an act of ordering and control, and yet the lived history of class struggles persistently denied control to the subordinate classes. With the emergence of communist politics Marx sees the opportunity to make history our history, to dictate its course rather than being driven along by it pell-mell. This implied a democracy more radical than anything yet known, glimpsed only in the Paris Commune, the ‘glorious harbinger of a new society’. Only in the process of overthrowing the ruling class can the working class rid itself of ‘all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew’."’ In effect he envisaged a global order in which the ethical life is realised, in which we feel ourselves freely developing our potential in socially productive ways, in cooperation rather than in antagonistic competition.

In a famous passage in the third volume of Capital Marx describes how the development of society involves the expansion of the realm of natural necessity in line with the expansion of human needs, but also with the expansion of the productive forces which can satisfy these needs. Freedom comes only when ‘socialised man, the associated producers’ collectively control production instead of being dominated by it. However, says Marx, ‘this always remains a realm of necessity’, whereas the ‘true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis’. He adds that the shortening of the working day is the basic prerequisite for this realm of freedom. The language of the passage invokes Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, in which the first earthly torments of Prometheus are described by the idea of Necessity (Ananke), endured so that freedom will be secured. Marx has moved beyond the position outlined in the Comments on James Mill, in which he depicted the production of basic goods under communism as a fulfilment of human sociality and creativity. This is not to deny that work performed to meet basic needs cannot be satisfying or attractive once exploitation has been removed. Work in a context free from coercion, consciously producing the material basis for a recreative life, can be a rewarding experience. But the realm of freedom is really to be found in what we as individuals choose to do freely, regardless of obligation. He had hinted that this was the true expression of human powers when he stated in the 1844 Manuscripts that we ‘only truly produce’ when free from physical need.

Marx’s expectations of the future of communism as a movement have not been met. However, in many respects the events of the century have confirmed his insights into the development of capitalism. He predicted the emergence of a truly global system, the concentration of capital in the hands of giant corporations, cyclical crises of increasing intensity (dismissed by all bourgeois social science during the postwar boom), and the reproduction of deep poverty throughout the world-system. Marx’s political economy stands the test of time well; the real difficulty begins with the prediction that the future will be socialist. Throughout his career he reiterated his conviction that the working class would become a class ‘for itself’ and lead the way to socialism. The emphasis on structural analysis discouraged separate study of the development of class consciousness, which, it was assumed, would develop as a reflex of objective class position. Just as the peasant thirsted for land, so the worker would thirst for socialism. The idea that socialism or communism would become the natural consciousness of wage earners has been shattered in the course of the century.

Marx and Engels were rather negative in their appraisal of the contributions of the utopian socialists, but it is often overlooked that they also praised them for protesting against ‘every principle of existing society’ and opening up to people the image of the ‘disappearance of class antagonisms’. And Norman Geras is right to conclude that today socialism is utopian socialism, operating as a moral ideal and a protest. The writers whom I identified with the ethical Marxist tradition are those who have been most closely associated with the interface between utopianism and Marxism. It is they who drew out the ethical impulse in Marx’s work and began to inquire into the conditions in which consciousness develops and the problems which this poses for those who wish to see the end of capitalism. In the following chapter I will look at the contributions of two of them, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, with a view to outlining what a more explicitly ‘ethical’ Marxism might offer to modern emancipatory theory.