Dialectics of Labour: Chapter 10 – Towards an Assessment

Dialectics of Labour: Marx and his Relation to Hegel
by C. J. Arthur
first published, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986
PART THREE: 1844 The Turning Point

Chapter 10 – Towards an Assessment


So far, we have concentrated largely on exegesis and clarification of Marx’s ideas and their relationship to his philosophical antecedents. The remainder of this book gives some indication of their validity and their limitations.

Given that we claim Marx’s theory of alienated labour has not been properly understood, it follows that most previous objections raised against it are irrelevant. [1] This chapter considers the most interesting charge, namely that Marx does not really break with Hegel’s problematic as far as alienation is concerned. I reject this; but acknowledge also that there are important limitations in the ontology of the 1844 Manuscripts. I believe this is overcome in the subsequent development of Marx’s thought, and that the ambivalence in his later writings on the question of the abolition of labour flows from his appreciation of the difficulties inherent in such a perspective.

The next chapter will go on to discuss briefly the contribution to Marx’s Capital of the ontology inaugurated in the 1844 Manuscripts.

Marx and the ‘Inversion’ of Hegel

Louis Althusser holds that the 1844 Manuscripts represent nothing but an inversion of Hegel and that consequently the dialectical form remains the same, even though activity is grasped as material rather than spiritual. Althusser holds that in Hegel we have ‘the simple unity of a totality produced by the negation of the negation . . . a simple original unity which develops within itself by virtue of its negativity, and throughout its development only ever restores the original simplicity and unity in an ever more “concrete” totality’. [2] Again: ‘the Phenomenology celebrates “the labour of the negative” . . . but negativity can only contain the motor principle of the dialectic . . . as a strict reflection of the Hegelian theoretical presuppositions of simplicity and origin . . . as a pure reflection of the principle of alienation itself’. [3] Althusser alleges that ‘it is this “Hegelian dialectic” that reigns in glory over Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts‘. [4]

Let us consider this charge that the 1844 Manuscripts, being nothing but a materialist inversion of Hegel, are open to the objections sustainable against Hegel’s dialectic. To begin with: even a cursory reading of Marx’s criticism of Hegel’s dialectic discloses that the self-identical totality is a main object of attack. It is linked to, but distinct from, the criticism that Hegel does not know real material labour but only the movement of mind. The attack is against the way in which Hegel uses the concepts of negation of the negation, and of ‘Aufheben‘, to present spirit as at home with itself in its otherness, having overcome, and yet preserved, estrangement as a moment in the absolute.

As we have seen, Marx follows Feuerbach in counterposing to Hegel’s self-identical totality a view of man as an objective being constituted in and through objective relationships. There is no suggestion in the text of a subject requiring to negate objectivity as such through grasping it as its own. On the contrary, Marx carefully distinguishes objectification and objectivity as such, on the one hand, from alienation and private property as specific historical determinations, on the other. As far as Marx’s concept of practice is concerned, we have seen that he pictures man as created in and through material production, but he stresses that the worker can create nothing without the sensuous external world as material for production; he speaks of the necessity for a dialogue with nature. [5]

In order to solve the problem of Marx’s conceptualization of the totality within which material production goes on, it is necessary to distinguish between an ‘identity‘ of opposites, in which the ‘other’ is nothing but the self in alienation, and a unity of opposites in which the other is really distinct as a pole of the relationship, however transformed in it.

It is clear that Marx conceives the unity of man and the rest of nature as a unity of this latter type. The unity is grounded in man’s natural origins (‘for man is a part of nature’ [6]); but the specific difference of the social must also be granted; the synthesizing moment is historical practice which takes up natural elements as material in the development of industry, the ontological foundation of properly human existence in society, It is clear that this work is an open-ended, always to be furthered project.

What then of Marx’s appropriation of the ‘negation of the negation’ and of ‘alienation’ from Hegel? We have shown that there is a big difference between Hegel’s absolutization of these moments and Marx’s view that they relate only to the history of mankind’s emergence, and are to be superseded in socialism positively grounded on itself. This is only possible in turn because his fundamental ontological frame of reference is the mediation of man and nature in industry, while the problem of alienation is reduced to a historically relative stage, however prolonged, by inscribing within the fundamental mediations the distorting effect of the secondary mediations: wage-labour and private property.

In this dialectic Marx is very careful to distinguish his understanding of estrangement from Hegel’s precisely through inscribing it within the unsurpassable reality of objectification as a specific historical determination. Therefore, overcoming alienation does not mean, as in Hegelianism, the encompassing of all otherness it just means ‘the destruction of the estranged character of the objective world’. [7] Spirit has as its negative something which is merely its own other because objectification can only be brought about within the absolute movement of negativity. The negative is easily negated in its turn simply through recollection of the process of its origination. In spite of Hegel’s incorporation of history within his system, his conception is ultimately ahistorical in that it requires a fixed ‘end’ to development, an end which always implies a return, however more developed, a closing of the circle. Marx’s conception implies a spiral progress which is open-ended; being immanent in a self-mediating subject with objective relationships it implies a perennial ‘starting over’ whenever the objective room for development of a given social totality is exhausted. Marx’s inquiry is into the material stages of development of human history, not the moments of movement of spirit’s production of itself out of itself. In the latter case the end bends back on the beginning, which in some sense presupposes it. But Marx’s inquiry into real history discloses the existence of distinct stages of development, complete in themselves, and separated by real discontinuities, by revolutionary transformations. One must distinguish transitions within a self-developing totality from transitions of such a more radical type, ontological breaks which refound the fundamental determinants of social being. In the present case the communist revolution marks a transition from ‘the relative ontological continuity inherent in the unfolding of capital’ (Mészáros [8]).

In the transition from capitalism to socialism the achievement of capitalism in developing the productive forces is to be appropriated and preserved, not by incorporating their existing form as private property within a higher totality, but by divesting them of their alien form through abolishing private property. It will not be the case that socialism will recognize its productive forces as marked by their origins in private property (once the transitional stage passes) even though Marx believes that the capitalist stage of their development was historically necessary.

In the dynamic contradiction of labour and private property the negation of the negation does not effect a closure then – an end of history – because this specific dialectic is inscribed, as the estrangement of social being, within the wider intermediations of man and nature. Hence the negation of the negation brought about through communist revolution opens out the possibility of a real human history no longer carried on under the mark of estrangement.

It is important here, therefore, not to oversimplify the dialectical movement of alienation and its supersession. When Marx speaks of ‘the emergence of nature for man’ this relation of difference – man for himself and nature for man – is a genuine advance beyond that state in which man is sunk in the natural, unable to perceive his own specificity as an acting subject and to grasp nature as an object of purposeful activity. At the same time this difference must maintain its necessary unity; for man depends on nature for his material reproduction. Two consequences follow; first, that, if in the estranging system of secondary mediations subject and object are opposed, they are none the less united, even though in a contradictory dynamic; second, that abolition of estrangement does not abolish this difference and restore relations of natural immediacy, but rather produces a unity in diversity, mediated through social labour, and freed from the contradictions of the estranging system of private property. The history of alienation does not go from identity to difference back to identity; rather, it goes from identity to contradictory unity in difference, on to non-antagonistic unity in difference.

Before I admit my own reservations on Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, let us look further at criticism. Ian Hunt and Roy Swan claim that in the Manuscripts Marx conceives of society ‘after the Hegelian manner’ as taking up its origin into itself, It is worth quoting in full the difference they see between the young Marx and mature Marxism.

In the transition from the Hegelian to the mature Marxist dialectic, the initial step is from an ideal to a material content, from the Idea to (material) labour, from Spirit to Society, which in Early Marx is conceived in its fruition as the union of humankind with nature in free, conscious self-determination.

As Marxism develops, it effects no radical alteration of the materialist content, although it does render it radically more concrete. However, the developing Marxism effects a radical change in dialectical form, and later in its formulation of the dialectical process. In terms of Hegel’s metaphor of the circle, there is a change from an emphasis on the circle ‘closing on itself’ to an emphasis in mature Marxism on ‘bursting out’ of the circle, which while completing, more fundamentally brings to dissolution one process and begins another. Whereas Hegel sees a ‘circle of circles’, that is, every ‘bursting out’ as in turn a circle enclosed in the all-embracing circle of the absolute, mature Marxism see an endless progression, a spiral movement (i.e. a ‘bursting out’ of a circle) which does not close on itself, but is open-ended.

By an emphasis on self-enclosure we mean, to begin with, the encompassing of all otherness within the subject that is supposed to ensure the true infinitude and freedom of the subject. Thus, in early Marxism, the conclusion of social ‘prehistory’, itself a part of nature and natural history, is Society brought to fruition, and this is after the Hegelian manner conceived as in turn encompassing (practically and theoretically) nature and natural history. In mature Marxism society is conceived as a part of natural history which in turn does not enclose natural history. [9]

Thus Hunt and Swan. What textual support could be mobilized in support of this view?

In the 1844 Manuscripts the description of communism as the positive supersession of private property certainly uses the imagery of ‘return’. Thus it is said to be ‘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’. Furthermore, ‘it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species’. [10] In this light, communism ‘is the riddle of history solved, and knows itself to be this solution’. [11] Further on it is asserted that ‘society is the complete unity in essence of man with nature’. [12] This means that ‘it is only when the objective world becomes everywhere for man in society the world of man’s essential powers . . . that all objects become for him the objectification of himself, become objects that confirm and realize his individuality, become his objects: that is, man himself becomes the object’. [13] The key relationship here as that of industry: ‘conceived as the exoteric revelation of man’s essential powers’ it realizes ‘the human essence of nature or the natural essence of man’. [14]

What are we to make of all this? The charge is that Marx here conceives man, in Hegelian fashion, taking up his origin into himself such that the condition of his activity becomes its consequence. This is answered if we recall the distinction between the set of primary mediations inhering in the permanent ontological framework man-activity-nature, and the secondary mediations labour-capital inscribed within it. It is only with regard to the secondary mediations that it is plausible to speak of a radical transcendence of the objective condition (private property) consequent on its being posited as the product of labour. But such a reversal is not possible with the material aspect of private property, the objects of productive activity; for nothing can be produced without naturally given material on which to work, however much this objectivity becomes socially mediated and mediates social man. Nature remains as a condition of activity, albeit more and more a determined determinant.

Certainly the natural basis of human being which lies at the origin as a given condition becomes more and more the object of human practice with the consequence (as Marx formulates it in Capital) that in acting on external nature man changes himself.[15] Yet, however highly mediated, social being still presupposes transformed natural objectivity, and reproduces itself in this framework. [16]

In distinguishing Marx’s 1844 dialectic from Hegel’s, it is important to contrast the self-mediatedness of spirit established through absolute negativity with the self-mediatedness of human being established in and through material practice. Take this crucial passage cited by Marx from Hegel’s 1830 Encyclopaedia:

Spirit is nature’s truth. In this truth nature is vanishing, and spirit has resulted as the idea which has attained being-for-itself, whose object as well as subject is the concept. This identity is absolute negativity, for whereas in nature the concept has its perfect external objectivity, its alienation has been sublated and the concept has become identical with itself. It is this identity only in that it is a return from nature. [17]

Marx charges Hegel with here characterizing the externality of nature as a defect, and with positing it as potentially superseded from the outset. [18] From this we must conclude that Marx could not simply replace the negating activity of thought with the material transformation of practice, while yet holding nature in the same contempt. If Marx insists, following Feuerbach, that man acts in the context of objective relationships, then his self-mediatedness cannot be absolutized in the manner of Hegel’s spirit. This is because he bases himself not on the identity of opposites but on their unity, in this context. One can see now that the difference in content must make a difference to the general form of working of the dialectic when it is stood on its feet, having been grounded materialistically, In Hegel, the unity of opposites collapses to an identity, pure self-distinction, which allows the negation of the negation to effect a closure and reduces historical time to an organon of absolute teleology. It is the irreducible distinction between man and the objective basis of his activity, however intermediated through labour and industry, that allows us to grasp the dialectic of human practice as historical and open-ended.

Furthermore, it is not possible to say that Marx views nature as inert matter to which human activity is to give shape. In discussing the appropriation of objects Marx says that such activity must take into account the determinate nature of such objects: ‘The manner in which they become his depends on the nature of the objects and on the nature of the essential power corresponding to it; for it is precisely the determinate nature of this relationship which shapes the particular real mode of affirmation.’ [19]

It cannot be said, therefore, that Marx simply substitutes material labour for that of spirit in Hegel’s dialectic, with the consequence that society is to enclose nature. The stress on objectivity in the text speaks too strongly against that. At the same time, it has to be allowed that there is something unsatisfactory about talk of ‘a complete unity in essence of man with nature’. There is indeed something deficient in the ontology of the 1844 Manuscripts. In my view the problem has to do less with the assimilation of Hegel than with that of Feuerbach.

The Real Problem

The defect is not a question of Marx’s conceptualizing subjectivity as enclosing all otherness in the Hegelian manner. The difficulty lies rather in the unproblematized unity of subject and object conceptualized under the influence of the Feuerbachian absolute – ‘man on the basis of nature’. The assumption is present that, just because man is natural, nature can be humanized through the mediation of industry. It is true that Marx (like Feuerbach) says that ‘man as an objective sensuous being is therefore a suffering being – and because he feels that he suffers, a passionate being’. [20] The stress, however, lies on the affirmative character of appropriation of the objects satisfying particular needs. There is no real recognition of the sheer recalcitrance of nature to human use.

The 1844 Manuscripts concentrates on the importance of overcoming the estrangement inherent in the private property system. Upon the reappropriation of the ontological essence of man therein alienated, it seems that man’s genesis through negation of the negation is complete. Marx fails to recognize here that genesis is a continuing process because the struggle to overcome ‘the realm of necessity’ (as Capital will call it) remains ever present; the retreat of the natural boundary, as the conditions of his existence pass under his control, is always a relative matter. [21]

Instead of bringing this aspect into focus, Marx takes the rather ‘phenomenological’ stance that with the end of estrangement man knows he is his own creation and freely exercises his active power on nature. He does not think through the problems inherent in slogans about the unity in essence of society and nature. He does not have clearly in view the fact that nature is self-subsistent on the basis of natural interactions. Of course, if asked, he would admit that this is so, because to do otherwise would be too obviously idealist. What he does not yet realize is the consequences of this in terms of the real recalcitrance of nature to human efforts and the problems to which this gives rise. Later he becomes more aware of it, as we see in this passage from the third volume of Capital:

The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production. This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time. Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. 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. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite. [22]

What we find in the 1844 Manuscripts is a peculiar synthesis of Hegel and Feuerbach. Whereas a purely Hegelian dialectic would arrive at an identity in which man incorporates his origin, Marx, having absorbed Feuerbach’s critique of identity, pushes the movement of negativity back into a kind of pre-history so as to arrive, after this ‘genesis’ is completed with communist revolution, at a Feuerbachian ‘positive, positively grounded in itself’, that is, the recognition by man of his origins in and unity with nature and the reorganization of social relations on this basis so as to promote the resolution of all contradictions.

In a way, the young Marx combines both Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s optimisms. In hailing man’s achievement in becoming aware of his self-mediatedness as the riddle of history solved, Marx is too Hegelian. In not taking the otherness of nature too seriously, once it has been retrieved from the alienated objectivity of private property and posited as the internally related object of man himself, Marx is too Feuerbachian.

After the end of alienation there must remain a dialectical process of interaction, even of opposition, as successive obstacles thrown up by nature are encountered. Negative ecological feedback cannot be supposed only a problem of capitalist anarchy, for example. The nature that is ‘for man’ is always a continually surprising interlocutor.

Although the unity of man with nature is insufficiently problematized in the 1844 Manuscripts the centralization of the category ‘labour’ already destabilizes such Feuerbachian residues. The curious thing is that Marx does not yet seem to realize this, although he will soon attack Feuerbach precisely for neglecting the ontological importance of activity. Because Marx follows Hegel in giving priority to activity, now transposed to a materialist key, the Feuerbachian immediacy of ‘man on the basis of nature’ is undermined.

Marx’s view is of man at the centre of a totality in which nature is ‘for man’, not as a passive object appropriated in a contemplative synthesis of sensuous intuition, but in a mediated unity actively constituted in so far as nature is posited as the object of human productive power. Inevitably, Marx soon sees that simply abolishing the status of the object as private property is not enough, that the level of development of the productive forces is also a key to emancipation. Without this, socialization of property could not have the desired consequences. [23]

The implications of such revisions in the ontological perspective are significant. For example, one cannot take seriously talk of genuine resolution of existence and essence, freedom and necessity, and so forth. If human essence is not merely species consciousness but is reproduced socially through material activity, it becomes subject to continual transformation. Any ‘naturalism’ of the essence must be rejected in favour of historically developing mediatedness. This means, as Mészáros says, that there cannot be ‘a point in history at which we could say “now the human substance has been fully realized” . . .’. [24]

The most interesting consequence, for our theme, is that of the future of labour.

The Abolition of Labour

It is necessary before going any further to recall the terminological point discussed in chapter 1, namely, that in the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx uses the term ‘labour’ to refer to alienated productive activity carried on under the regime of private property. As was said there, failure to consider such terminological problems leads to intolerable confusion. (An example, giving rise to such problems of interpretation, is discussed in an Appendix to this chapter.) Nevertheless, this point about the differences in usage of 1844, and Marx’s later work, is connected to a genuine problem. In the 1844 Manuscripts Marx could use the term ‘labour’ in the way he does because he is working with a very simple dichotomy: under the regime of private property, productive activity is labour, that is, alienated activity; with the positive supersession of private property it is free activity – ‘labour’ is abolished.

He speaks of the abolition of labour as late as the German Ideology (1846). He says there also that, whereas now self-activity and material production diverge completely, with the appropriation of the existing totality of productive forces ‘self-activity coincides with material life’, and labour ‘is transformed into self-activity’; then, the fully developed individual casts off the ‘natural-grown’ one. [25] With the change in ontological perspective such a simple inversion can no longer be maintained. [26] The abolition of the system of estrangement cannot amount to the abolition of the realm of necessity itself. Material production (‘labour’ in the revised terminology) remains subject to its imperatives. Hence in the quotation from the third volume of Capital given above Marx sees a permanent opposition between a realm of freedom and a realm of necessity, within which only the balance can change, in that the working day can be shortened.

Before looking further at the question of how Marx revised the over-simple perspective of his youth, it should be emphasized that when he speaks there of the abolition of labour he certainly does not mean the abolition of material productive activity itself. He has in mind rather the seizing by the workers of the instrument and object of production and the consequent abolition of vertical and horizontal stratification (self-management, end of the division of labour). At this stage in Marx’s development it seems clear that his view of the potential of socialism is considerably influenced by Fourier in this respect, although his terminology is somewhat different. [27] The clearest example of Fourier’s influence is the notorious passage in the German Ideology on the abolition of the division of labour. Then ‘nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic’. [28]

This illustration maps pretty well the sort of working days Fourier outlined in his utopian scheme. [29] The pastoralism may well be ironical, since Marx had already, in the 1844 Manuscripts, criticized Fourier for taking agricultural work as exemplary. [30] What is not ironical, apparently, is the general idea of such a solution to the division of labour. Yet one is struck by the fact that one does not overcome the present fragmentation of production by collating a heap of fragments. [31]

At all events, with the rejection of such Fourierism and the substitution of a relativized problem of continuing engagement with the imperatives of labour, the question of the relationship between free activity and material production becomes open. There are three possible solutions, each of which Marx toys with at some time. There is no space here to study in detail the ambivalence, and apparent contradictions, on the question in Marx’s later writings. All we can do is to give some indication that he grapples with the problem.

The first alternative we have already seen, namely, the acknowledgement of the permanence of the realm of necessity, the distinction from this of the realm of freedom, and hence the view that labour remains man’s curse. All one can hope for is the possible abolition of labour through total automation (a tendency anticipated by Marx in his Grundrisse). [32] The second alternative is to return unblushingly to the original perspective. This we find in one of Marx’s last works, the critique of the Gotha programme, in which his vision of ‘a higher phase of communist society’ includes, besides the abolition of the division of labour, the remarkable claim that labour becomes ‘life’s prime want’! [33] This seems to return us to Fourier. For Fourier, productive labour is a natural and spontaneous need; given a suitable social structure it becomes identical with self-enjoyment.

The third solution would refuse such an identity, but refuse also the unmediated opposition of self-activity and material production. it would be an attempt to try for a dialectical interpretation of freedom and necessity. [34] This idea can be found in Marx, when he goes for a middle way between Smith and Fourier, in his Grundrisse. Marx argues that because Smith has in mind only capitalist forms of employment he counterposes labour to freedom and happiness. In trying to envisage an alternative conception Marx first argues that an individual in his normal state of health needs to work; he then argues that this does not mean that such work is to be ‘mere fun, mere amusement, as Fourier with grissette-like naïvety conceives it’; for ‘really free working, e.g. composing,’ is a serious business requiring ‘intense exertion’. The key thing that brings it within the realm of freedom is when the aims that impose this discipline are not imposed from without but are posited by the individual himself. In such a context, overcoming obstacles ‘is in itself a liberating activity’ [35] (a very Hegelian idea).

‘Real economy’, Marx declares, ‘consists of the saving of labour time’. This of course depends on ‘the development of the productive forces.’ However, the free time won is in truth ‘time for the full development of the individual, which in turn reacts back upon the productive power of labour as itself the greatest productive power’. [36] Given this, we cannot accept an abstract antithesis between ‘direct labour time and free time’. This is an illusion grounded in ‘the perspective of bourgeois economy’. Marx underlines Fourier’s contribution in shifting the attention of socialists from questions of distribution to that of the mode of production; but he reasserts that ‘labour cannot become play, as Fourier would like’. [37] Yet, because free time allows for ‘higher activity’ we get a different kind of subject entering production, an educated worker. In work Marx sees three aspects: the ‘discipline’ involved in the process of becoming human; the creative use of acquired knowledge and power; and even ‘in so far as labour requires practical use of the hands and free bodily movement, as in agriculture, at the same time exercise’. [38]

The solution suggested in such passages to the supposed antithesis between free activity and materially determined production presupposes the whole ontology inaugurated (if not completed) in the 1844 Manuscripts. Once the socially constituted unity in difference of man with nature is thought through, such an abstract antithesis must be rejected; even if, from the perspective of the existing estranged relationships, it seems all too plausible. Free activity (like alienated activity in fact) is constituted socially. Society in turn is constituted on the basis of material production. There is therefore a relationship between free activity and material production which it is the task of historical materialism to elucidate. As we have seen, this relationship is not simply quantitative, where free time depends on the shortening of the working day, although this is certainly important and rests on the potential of the productive forces available. It is also a matter of a growing mediatedness of the two sides such that the material practice through which man actualizes himself is a unified process which, though conditioned by existing wants and productive powers, also realizes both in itself, and in its grounding of other practices, human creativity and liberation. This process is open-ended in that new goals, new obstacles, and new powers, spring from it.

Freedom is not something given, it is won and re-won in the dialectic of history.


Marx’s theory of alienation is not simply a materialist transformation of Hegel. None the less, the unity of man and nature is insufficiently problematized in 1844. Hence, the abolition of private property is identified with the abolition of ‘labour’ and the transition to free activity. Later, Marx recognizes that productive activity, even in socialism, is a labour caught up in the dialectic of freedom and necessity.


Problems of Interpretation

In order to show the sheer difficulty of reading the text of 1844 (towards the overcoming of which these labours are directed), let us take as a case study a single passage and see how four different commentators respond to it. This passage is of peculiar importance because it is from the beginning of the section on ‘estranged labour’ in the first manuscript, that is to say, the place where Marx first introduces the idea of alienation. Marx writes:

Labour produces not only commodities: it produces itself and the worker as a commodity . . . This fact simply means that the object that labour produces, its product, confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object; it is the objectification of labour. The realization of labour is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labour appears as loss of reality for the workers, objectification as loss of, and bondage to, the object, appropriation as estrangement, as alienation . ‘ . So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he boils under the sway of his product, capital. All these consequences flow from a situation characterized by this: that the worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object. [39]

Ignorant writers, not worthy of particular notice, take ‘objectification’ here to carry a negative load, to be nothing but a synonym for alienation. They do this without knowing any Hegel. Yet even a sophisticated scholar like Pierre Naville tends to the same mistaken identification when he says that what we have here is a philosophical account borrowed from Hegel of the equation of objectification and alienation. He qualifies this merely by granting that Marx is anxious to give the idea ‘a practical basis’. [40]

Lukács, by contrast, says of exactly the same passage that, while Hegel is not mentioned by name, ‘even a cursory glance’ reveals that these remarks amount to ‘a fundamental critique of Hegel’s philosophy’. This is because estrangement is sharply distinguished here from objectification in the act of labour. [41]

Erich Fromm equates the passage with one from Capital.[42] This arouses the ire of Ernest Mandel, who objects that ‘Fromm does not notice that in the former what is being discussed is labour and the products of labour in general, whereas the latter begins with these very words: “Within the capitalist system . . .”.’ [43] Mandel avers that the passage in question does not seek the origin of alienated labour ‘in a specific form of human society, but in human nature itself’. [44]

Mandel’s reading is clearly wrong. The references to commodities and capital are clear enough. Furthermore, Marx cannot believe that alienated labour is rooted in human nature itself because the sequence of oppositions between objectification and loss of the object, etc. shows he is aware that specific economic conditions are responsible when appropriation appears as alienation. One reason why Mandel is led astray is that, as was explained in chapter 1, Marx uses ‘labour’ in his early writings in the same sense as does political economy, namely as productive activity formed by the present economic conditions, not as the more general notion Mandel takes it to be. Unlike political economy, Marx does not take such labour to be inherent in human nature. Hence he can look forward to the practical abolition of alienation.

1 Because he grounds human being in its objective relations Marx’s ontology in the 1844 Mss supersedes a mere anthropology; thus it is not touched by such claims on the part of Althusser, Sève and others.

2 Louis Althusser, For Marx (1965), trans. Ben Brewster, London, 1969, p. 197.

3 Ibid., p. 214.

4 Ibid., p. 198n.

5 Werke Eb., 512-16; C.W.3, 273-6; E.W., 325-8.

6 Werke Eb., 516; C.W.3, 276.

7 Werke Eb., 583; C.W.3, 341; E.W., 395.

8 István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, London, 1970, p. 45.

9 Ian Hunt and Roy Swan, ‘A comparison of Marxist and Hegelian dialectical form’, Radical Philosophy (1982), no. 30., pp. 36-7.

10 Werke Eb., 536; C.W.3, 296.

11 Werke Eb., 536; C.W.3, 297.

12 Werke Eb., 538; C.W.3, 298; E.W., 349.

13 Werke Eb., 541; C.W.3, 301.

14 Werke Eb., 543; C.W.3, 303.

15 C.1 (Penguin), 283.

16 See Georg Lukács, Ontology of Social Being: Marx (1972), tram. D. Fernbach, London, 1978, p. 9.

17 Enzyklopädie der Philosophischen Wissenschaften (1830), Hamburg, 1975. para. 381.

18 Werke Eb., 588; C.W.3, 346; E.W., 399-400.

19 Werke Eb., 541; C.W.3, 301. For a vigorous attack on neo-Hegelian Marxism for conceptualizing nature as unformed material for human practice see Peter Ruben, Dialektik und Arbeit der Philosophie, Köln, 1978.

20 Werke Eb., 579; C.W.3, 337.

21 Grundrisse, trans. M. Nicolaus, Harmondsworth, 1973, pp. 409-10; see also Lukács, Ontology, pp. 8-10.

22 C.3 (Penguin), 959.

23 For example, in the German Ideology, C.W.5, 49.

24 Mészáros, Theory of Alienation, p. 119.

25 C.W.5, 87-8. The last phrase is my attempt to give sense to ‘Abstreifung aller Naturwüchtigkeit‘ because C.W.5 gives somewhat the wrong impression with ‘casting off all natural limitations’.

26 Pierre Naville, in De L’Aliénation à la Jouissance, Paris, 1957, thinks Marx stock to the aspiration to abolish labour in favour of free activity. J.R. Mailer, in Actualité de Fourier, ed. Henri Lefebvre, Paris, 1975, refutes Naville (pp. 264-87).

27 For a comparison see Janina Rosa Mailer, ‘Fourier et Marx’, in Lefebvre, Actualité de Fourier.

28 C.W.5, 47.

29 Oeuvres Complètes Tome VI. Paris. 1966-68, pp. 67-8.

30 Werke Eb., 534; C.W.3, 294.

31 Kostas Axelos says that this is a ‘transcendence of “differences” into a world of generalized indifference’, unless it is reconceptualized as ‘play’: Alienation, Praxis and Techné in the Thought of Karl Marx (1961), trans. R. Bruzina, Austin, Texas, and London, 1976, p. 258.

32 Grundrisse, pp. 704-6.

33 M.E.S.W., 324. See the analysis in Kate Soper, On Human Needs, Brighton, 1981, pp. 196 ff.

34 For remarks on this see Karel Kosík, Dialectics of the Concrete (1961), Dordrecht, 1976, pp. 123-7.

35 New MEGA II, 1, Teil 2, 499; Grundrisse, p. 611.

36 New MEGA II, 1, Teil 2, 589; Grundrisse, p. 711.

37 New MEGA, ibid.; Grundrisse, p. 712.

38 Ibid. The reference to discipline here perhaps recalls Hegel’s definition of work as desire restrained and checked, and its role in the becoming of self-consciousness. It is amusing in the light of Marx’s criticism of Fourier that contemporary French philosophy is still prone to celebrate ‘the play of desire’ as against ‘productivism’.

39 Werke Eb., 511-12; C.W.3, 272; E.W., 324.

40 Naville, De L’Aliénation, pp. 148-9.

41 Werke 8, 631; The Young Hegel, trans. Rodney Livingstone, London, 1975, p. 549.

42 Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (1961), New York, 1971, pp. 51-2.

43 Ernest Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx (1967), London, 1971, p. 165.

44 Ibid., p. 161.