Dialectics of Labour: Chapter 11 – The Continuing Importance of 1844

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 11 – The Continuing Importance of 1844


It was in 1844 that Marx first embarked on ‘the critique of political economy’; it was a task he never really completed. The only substantial result of his labours that he himself saw published was the first volume of Capital in 1867. A question arises immediately. If it took Marx 23 years’ work before he could present the core of his findings in published form, of what value are the unpublished studies of 1844? The controversy about the ‘young’ and ‘mature’ Marx is well known. It is beyond the scope of this work to trace the development of Marx’s thought throughout his entire opus, although some brief indications have been given earlier; the attempt here is solely to clarify the ideas of 1844. None the less, it is necessary to say something, however brief, in order to indicate the continuing importance of this turning point.

1844 and 1867

It must be conceded at the outset that there is no trace in the 1844 Manuscripts of the specific concepts Marx employs in his subsequent scientific account of the capitalist economy. Most importantly, he has no adequate account of the capital relation and hence no theory of surplus value. The concept of alienation evidently embraces this; but Marx lacked the resources to spell out the more concrete determinations required.

Let us see how one or two sympathetic commentators deal with this issue. Allen Wood finds that Marx’s mature theory ‘does not assign to alienation the basic explanatory role projected for it in the early fragment’. Nevertheless, Wood also believes that ‘Marx does not simply abandon the concept of alienation in his mature writings. The position is that in the later works it is no longer explanatory but descriptive or diagnostic’. [1] it describes the effects of the existing mode of production rather than accounts for them; rather as a doctor might diagnose fever without yet having discovered the bacterium responsible.

On this view, then, we could say that in 1844 Marx goes as far as problematizing the private property relationship, but not explaining it. In spite of his claim to have explained the findings of the political economists to them, he merely accepts their results (the labour theory of value, the conflicts over distribution) and then draws attention to the paradox that everything is traced to labour, yet labour gets nothing and private property everything. But the private property relationship must be examined in itself to show not just that philosophical critique demands a resolution but that the real nature of the object itself is driving towards it.

Marx has grasped the elevation of capital to a pure form abstracted from content but he has not yet discovered the dynamic of the form itself and the way it really sustains itself on the basis of surplus labour. Capitalism as an ontologically distinct finite system of self-determination is not produced. He has not shown how the capital relation is reproduced. He cannot therefore prove that the private property relation is a dynamic contradictory one producing its own grave diggers. In 1867 we get a scientific account of the inner nature, as opposed to the phenomenal results, of the relation earlier problematized. Nevertheless, when his development of the theory of capitalist production is successful, we may argue, this does not mean a rejection of his early work, rather its adequate founding; the intuitions become solid arguments; the ‘choreography’ gets its infilling.

In my opinion there is more to the 1844 Manuscripts than this. While the view outlined above would justify paying attention to the 1844 Manuscripts, it does not give it an essential role, not just in posing problems, but in founding Marx’s new science.

Alex Callinicos suggests that such a role may be elucidated by recourse to the distinction made by Popper and his followers between scientific and metaphysical propositions. According to this view, philosophical theories are metaphysical because they can never be conclusively tested, and attempts to establish their truth involve some a priori procedure. Metaphysical propositions may, nevertheless, serve a heuristic function in a scientific research programme. ‘In so far as the hypotheses they generate are confirmed or refuted, such metaphysical statements may themselves be regarded as verifiable or falsifiable . . .’. [2]

According to Callinicos, the 1844 Manuscripts contain such a metaphysical theory (of man as a producer, and the analysis of estranged labour). This theory is not empirical but none the less inspires some of Marx’s assumptions. ‘For example, there can be no doubt that it partially motivated Marx’s choice of social labour, rather than utility, as the homogeneous factor underlying the variety of commodities placed on the market.’ [3] However, Callinicos hastens to add that the truth of the labour theory of value cannot be derived from the truth of Marx’s theory of human nature, since the latter is treated as a metaphysical theory which can be neither confirmed nor refuted by experience; rather it depends upon the falsifiable empirical hypotheses derived from it’. [4]

Callinicos is right to say that Marx’s philosophy of man should not be vindicated on a priori argument but on the success of the research programme it inspires. However, to label it metaphysical simply expresses a certain narrow epistemological prejudice. What we are discussing are the ontological commitments implicit in any science. It is how things are that determines how they are known and not the other way around.

It is impossible to show here in detail how chapter after chapter of Capital can be understood as a further concretization of the ideas of 1844. What can be asserted in particular is that the thrust of Capital as a critique of political economy is made possible by the ontological framework established in 1844 and somewhat modified later in the manner discussed in chapter 10. [5] The movement of history is there understood as the outcome of the transformation of the man-nature relationship. In this way the concept of ‘mode of production’ is made possible.

On the basis of this ontological priority accorded to productive activity all modes of production and associated forms of social organization are opened to radical critique. [6] It is the interplay in Marx’s theory between the permanent moment of mediated unity of man and nature, and the historically specific social forms this takes, that allows critical space for the diagnosis of the self-supersession of a given form. Certainly, in order to unmask the fetishized ‘naturalness’ of capitalist relations of production such an ontological framework is required. The critique of political economy requires a double movement. First the recognition that, as private property, labour-power and capital are estranged, each recalcitrant to appropriation by the other. This can be grasped only when the estranged forms are distinguished from the underlying man-nature unity. Then in turn the secondary mediations, exchange, wages, profit, can be represented as alien mediators reproducing rather than cancelling the estranged relationship. This critical understanding of the social form in which the man-nature dialectic is now worked out is possible only if alienated labour is grasped both in its non-identity with the primary mediation and also as the historically specific form taken by this underlying content considered as ontologically basic. The historical conditions of alienation can become the object of analysis only if they are situated in relation to that mediated unity which, in so far as it is mediated, allows for this alienation, and which in so far as it is a unity, allows a correct understanding of the existing system of social reproduction based on ‘labour’ (under the sign of private property) as an alien mediator.

The phenomena of estrangement must be understood in terms of the way in which the fundamental mediated unity of man and nature gives rise through specific historical processes to particular alienated forms of such mediation.

The form of value, for example, as Marx points out in his well-known letter to Kugelmann, must in some way enshrine, albeit in mystified form, the process of objectification and material reproduction. [7] It is not necessary to know this in order to adhere to a labour theory of value. This was possible for Smith and Ricardo. But it is necessary if the value-form of the product of labour is to become an object of criticism instead of being illegitimately naturalized, as it was in classical political economy which identified the two levels of mediation. At the same time, the labour theory of value cannot be articulated sufficiently on the basis of the ontological premises alone. To articulate correctly the forms of appearance of the content is no easy task. Marx had to expend enormous effort in working out the dialectic of the value-form itself, in solving the secret of surplus value and in disentangling the essence of the capital relation from its mystifying forms of appearance (interest, profit etc.). But it is only when the capital relation is conceived as a specific social form of material reproduction that the essential relation can be distinguished from the fetishized forms.

Although the failure of bourgeois economics may be explained politically, its intellectual limitations come down to its conflation of different levels of mediation, and its methodological individualism, that is to say, its failure to grasp the nature of social being: its weakness is in its ontology. Conversely, Marx’s Capital is inconceivable without its ontological underpinning, and that was first opened up in the 1844 Manuscripts.

We may say that anyone who fails to see the relevance of the 1844 Manuscripts to Capital has simply not understood Capital itself. Some corroboration of this is that Althusser’s theoretical anti-humanism is driven into a bizarre idealism of the structure, which treats particular individuals merely as bearers of its relations, in the same way as Hegel’s ‘concept’ (quelle horreur!). In this way, far from providing a critique of reification, theoretical anti-humanism capitulates to it. But, to borrow Marx and Engels’ words, structure ‘fights no fight’; ‘it is real living man who fights’. [8] In proletarian revolution the workers precisely refuse to be bearers of the commodity labour-power any longer.

In comprehending such transformations the importance of an ontological framework against which to measure the shifting historical forms is clear. Otherwise critique would be reduced to contesting the validity of the existing order from the standpoint of a historically contingent utopian aspiration. By contrast, Marx’s critique acquires a rootedness in material reality whereby it can ground the historical necessity of existing forms, while yet grasping their limits and the conditions of their supersession.

The Standpoint of Labour

Both in the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital it is clear that the political location of Marx’s critique is that of the proletariat. [9] It is important to recognize that this is not a matter of a sympathetic identification with their problems. It flows from the identification of labour as the key social mediator. Furthermore, simply to say that Marx takes the standpoint of labour is inadequate. It has to be said also that Marx takes the critically adopted standpoint of labour, and that this is a matter not of mere partiality but of the place of labour in the social totality.

We have shown that, already in 1844, the standpoint of practical criticism is not man in general, but ‘labour’, that is to say, a definite pole of the system of estrangement. This is a political as well as a philosophical advance over Feuerbach’s humanism because Marx explicitly links it to class-political communism, not just to the question of human essence. Significantly, the very first sentence of the 1844 Manuscripts reads: ‘Wages are determined through the hostile struggle between capitalist and worker.’ [10] The identification of the proletariat as the class of the future is no longer based on its universal suffering but on its strategic position in the economic order. However, in order to go beyond his sources in political economy, Marx has to unmask their identification of productive activity with wage-labour, and to grasp ‘labour’ as an estranged and alienating mediator falsely absolutized by Smith, and modelled in idealist philosophy by Hegel.

Hence the importance of characterizing Marx’s position as that of the critically adopted standpoint of labour. At the same time this implies that Marx cannot be satisfied with a call for higher wages, or better conditions, in this way expressing the standpoint of labour against capital within the private property system. Because he grasps such ‘labour’ as a transient historical form of the productive activity that underpins the whole, he can envisage the proletariat abolishing itself as proletariat in the communist revolution.

Moreover, for Marx, such a revolution is to be no mere juridical rearrangement realizing ‘justice’, nor a narrowly economic matter of efficient allocation of resources to meet basic needs. It is a question of a fundamental transformation of social being, hence of individuals, their activity and their essential relations. It is a question of what socialism is all about – emergence of a truly human society. The later scientific achievements, and the orientation to problems of political organization, never obliterated Marx’s commitment to the profound insights of 1844.

1 A.W. Wood, Karl Marx, London, 1981, p. 7.

2 Alex Callinicos, Marxism and Philosophy, Oxford, 1983, p. 41.

3Ibid., p. 53. Scott Meikle goes so far as to say that, given the 1844 Mss, ‘the labour theory of value must follow’: Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx, London, 1985, p. 55.

4Callinicos, Marxism and Philosophy, p. 53.

5See Georg Lukács, Ontology of Social Being: Marx, trans. D. Fernbach, London, 1978, pp. 10-15, on this.

6See Gülnur Savran, ‘Rousseau, Hegel and the Critique of Civil Society’, DPhil. thesis, University of Sussex 1983; the line of argument below is in agreement with her analysis.

711 July 1868: Selected Correspondence, ed. S. Ryazanskaya, Moscow, 1965, p. 208.

8 The Holy Family: C.W.4, 93. For useful discussions see Alfred Schmidt, History and Structure, Cambridge, Moss., and London, 1981, esp. pp. 61-2, and Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend, London, 1983, esp. pp. 92-4.

9′In so far as such a critique represents a class, it can only represent the class whose task is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes – the proletariat’: C.1 (Penguin), 98.

10 Werke Eb., 471; C.W.3, 235.