Dialectics of Labour: Chapter 2 – Private Property

Dialectics of Labour: Marx and his Relation to Hegel
by C. J. Arthur
first published, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986
PART ONE: Marx’s Theory of Alienation

2 – Private Property


The first chapter brought out the character of estranged labour by showing how the fundamental mediatedness of social development, articulated through the complex man – activity – nature, becomes transformed in all its dimensions: man is specified socially as labourer or exploiter; productive activity becomes alienated labour; and the object is constituted within the sphere of private property as an independent power, as capital.

This chapter will take a closer took at this set of second-order mediations. In particular, it will discuss the way in which Marx conceives of the relation between alienated labour and private property; the dialectic of the movement of private property; and the contradictions that require resolution.

The Movement of Private Property

At first sight it appears that the worker’s alienation in his labour is due to the subordination of labour to private property. His estrangement follows from the separation between labour and private property, and the power of private property over the immediate producer. The only certainty in the worker’s life is that his destiny depends upon private property – on whether it has any use for the labour he offers. The immediate precondition of alienated labour thus appears to be private property in the means of production which excludes the worker.

Unwary readers of the section on ‘estranged labour’ in the 1844 Manuscripts – assuming that what is being claimed is that the worker is alienated because he works under the sway of the property owner – are then astonished when Marx suddenly turns round and says that private property is not so much the cause as the consequence of alienation. Here is the passage in question:

Private property is . . . the product, result, and necessary consequence, of alienated labour, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself . . . It is true that we took the concept of alienated labour . . . from political economy as a result of the movement of private property. But it is clear from an analysis of this concept that if private property appears as the ground, the basis of alienated labour, it is much more its consequence, just as the gods were originally not the cause but the effect of the confusion in men’s minds. Later, however, this relationship becomes reciprocal. [1]

It is of the first importance to understand what Marx is saying here, and the significance of his view of private property as the product of alienated labour. [2] A clue to the direction of his thought is given a few tines later, when he comments: ‘In speaking of private property one imagines that one is dealing with something external to man. In speaking of labour one is immediately dealing with man himself.’ [3] This reminds us that private property is a social institution. It is simply a way of organizing human relationships in the production and distribution of material goods. Ultimately it has to be grasped as a human creation. Otherwise one would be illegitimately naturalizing (treating as a given basis of human existence) what is produced and reproduced in and through human history.

None the less, as we shall see in a moment, in the case of pre-capitalist society one is not going too far from the truth in seeing property, e.g. landed property, as a prior condition of labour’s realization: but developed private property, held as capital, is different. Capital, as a store of value, is internally related to value-creating labour.

In the first part of the 1844 Manuscripts Marx stays close to his sources in political economy and shows from facts admitted by political economy itself that the more the worker produces the less he can call his own and ‘the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital’. [4]

In its theory political economy says that labour is the basis of production and exchange; Adam Smith is quite clear that the real ‘wealth of nations’ lies in the labour force and in improvements in productivity brought about by the division of labour. The economy appears to be founded on the movement of private property, on buying, selling, investing, profiting; but behind these relationships lies labour and its relations and development. Marx says that there is therefore a paradox in that ‘political economy starts out from labour as the real soul of production, and yet gives nothing to labour and everything to private property’! ‘Proudhon has dealt with this contradiction’, Marx continues, ‘by deciding for labour and against private property’; but that is insufficiently dialectical; what we are faced with is ‘the contradiction of estranged labour with itself. [5] Today, private property is, paradigmatically, capital, which is nothing but a store of value. What is the origin of value? What is its substance? Why – labour! Every time the worker labours, therefore, he creates a value which, when realized on the market by the employer, adds to his capital. The worker produces and reproduces that which dominates him – capital.

The relation of cause and consequence is grasped here from the point of view of the self-reproduction process of the totality rather than an external conjunction of antecedent and consequent. Abstract alienated labour, and capital, stand in an internal relation which structures the whole of capitalist society in such a way that its reproduction depends on the constant reflection of these moments into each other (for ‘moment’, see Appendix). To prioritize labour is not to overlook the power of capital; but capital’s effectivity as the proximate moment in the worker’s estrangement does not prevent Marx from grasping it as the mediating moment in labour’s self-alienation, established by labour itself as its own otherness. In grasping this dialectical relation of reflection in otherness we are dealing not with the constant conjunction of otherwise unrelated elements but with a polar relation in which, although one can follow the movement of private property as its current principal aspect, the ultimately overriding moment must be labour, which alienates itself in the capital to which it is subordinated.

Marx says:

The labourer produces capital and capital produces him, which means that he produces himself; man as a labourer, as a commodity, is the product of this entire cycle. [6]

In relating labour in its alienation to fully developed private property, that is, capitalist property, in this way, Marx is well aware that relationships were different in previous social formations. When he gives priority to labour over property he is not posing it as historically antecedent but rather as ontologically more fundamental in the social totality established by their dialectic. However, this dialectical relationship between labour and private property is itself a historically developed result. Hence, it had not merely to be discovered, but to be created. If one looks, as Marx does in the first manuscript, at precapitalist formations, there is no internal economic dialectic between labour and property as there is between labour as the substance of value and capital as ‘stored up labour’ – as Marx defines it (following Adam Smith). [7]

In the main form of pre-capitalist property, namely landed property worked by serfs, or yielding tithes, there is certainly an opposition between labour and property in that, in virtue of the political ties of lordship and bondage, the exploitation of the propertyless mass of labourers is effected. But this process of exploitation does not sustain the property relation itself in purely economic fashion. Romanticism views this state of affairs as the absence of alienation – for the market is very marginal to life and the land is inalienable. But, despite the absence of the activity of huckstering in the daily round, estrangement is still present as a permanent condition. ‘Feudal landed property is already by its very nature’, Marx says, ‘huckstered land, which is estranged from man and hence confronts him in the shape of a few great lords.’ Thus, the basic condition of labour, the earth, appears as ‘an alien power over man’. Hence ‘the rule of private property begins with property in land; that is its basis’. [8] However, it does not yet appear as an economic power, because it is politically enforced and reproduced. From an economic point of view feudal property is an externally enforced condition determining one’s place in production and the possibility of gaining wealth; for example, the serf is condemned to be an appurtenance of the land, the land itself is inalienably linked to the system of primogeniture.

But when private property is fully developed it is free from all such restrictions and is universally alienable. Along with the development of markets in all kinds of commodities goes the reduction of land and labour themselves to alienable commodities. Possession now depends no longer on political mediation, but on the effect of the purely economic movement. It becomes inevitable, Marx says,

that the rule of the property owner should appear as the naked rule of private property, of capital, divested of all political tincture; that the relationship between property owner and worker should be reduced to the economic relationship of exploiter and exploited; that the personal relationship between the property owner and his property should come to an end, and that property itself should become merely objective material wealth . . . [9]

It is noteworthy, moreover, that Marx commonly speaks of the power of property or of capital rather than the domination of the property owner or the capitalist. Much more is involved here than a rhetorical figure. This usage represents Marx’s insight into the real conditions of social relationships in bourgeois society. This is: that the nature of the relationship between persons follows from their relationships to things. If one asks of two persons going into a factory why it is that one can boss the other around, the answer cannot be given in terms of the personal qualities of the individuals concerned but only in terms of their differing relation to capital. The one who owns (or acts on behalf of) capital is thereby the master of the other. Marx says:

Capital is the power to command labour and its products. The capitalist possesses this power not on account of his personal or human properties but in so far as he is the owner of capital. His power is the purchasing power of his capital, which nothing can withstand. [10]

Throughout his work Marx never tires of contrasting the relationships of personal dependency in pre-capitalist society with the liberation from personal dependence established by the bourgeois revolution; but then there comes the common dependence on impersonal relations; through the mediation of money and capital new social dependencies arise.

In feudalism there is the appearance of a meaningful unity between the individual and the means of production in that land is individuated with its lord and its serfs – just this particular estate is his and they belong to it. Hence the proverb: ‘No land without its lord.’ [11] Developed private property, by contrast, has an abstractly universal form: value. One can put one’s wealth ‘into anything – factories, land, works of art – without ceasing to be ‘worth’ so much. Money dissolves all feudal fixity and we find the modern saying ‘Money has no master’ expressing the absolute contingency of the relationship between property and personality. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels (following Carlyle [12]) will declare that there remains ‘no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash-payment”.’ [13] We no longer bow the knee to princes, but now, says Marx, ‘an impersonal power rules over everything’. [14]

What Marx traces in his treatment of pre-capitalist forms is a movement from a situation where property is a politically enforced condition of labour (for example, one just finds that one is obliged to work as a serf for the propertied) to that in which property rests on the exploitation of the ‘free’ labourer in the capital relation. There is a shift from a state of estrangement between labour and its conditions of actualization (appearing over against it as another’s property) to the constitution of a process of alienation sustaining the system of estrangement of labour from its object and itself.

The first relation (politically effected estrangement) is a historically prior condition of the second complex; but in the movement of the economic totality that is now constituted by the relations of labour and capital, labour establishes private property as its estranged self. Marx says: ‘It is only at the culminating point of the development of private property that this its secret re-emerges, namely, that on the one hand it is the product of alienated labour, and on the other it is the means through which labour alienates itself, the realization of this alienation.’ [15]

The relation of immediate exclusion between labour and its object remains in the new dynamic, not now as a precondition, but as a mediated result, as the recurring moment at which the worker is forced to sell his labour-power because he has no other property. The whole system, including the reproduction of this very moment, is sustained by labour’s continual self-alienation. [16]

Private property, originally other than labour, becomes in practice labour’s own other, private property as alienated labour. Private property is unmasked as itself a structure of alienation, rather than the (apparently external) cause of estrangement.

Let us now summarize the position we have reached – in so doing, perhaps, elaborating it rather more sharply than it is explicitly articulated in the text.

It is necessary first to recognize the fact that we have now seen two senses in which private property is less fundamental than productive activity. In the first place the general level of discussion of these issues has led us to emphasize the importance of conceptualizing the system of private property as a historically specific form of organizing the material life of society. In principle it is possible to envisage material production going on without it, and it is possible to discuss the work-process in abstraction from it (as Marx does in the first section of the chapter on ‘the labour-process’ in Capital). The question of the origins of the alienating second-order mediations is something Marx does not attempt to tackle in the 1844 Manuscripts. (In the German Ideology he links back private property to the development of the social division of labour.) But this question is not relevant to his purposes in any case, because what counts from the point of view of the dynamic of the supersession of the private property system is its present articulation and contradictions. This in turn leads us to the second striking aspect of Marx’s theory of alienation. As we have seen, even if we take it that private property, and hence the estrangement of labour from its object, is historically given, study of the movement of private property itself leads Marx to conclude that in its reciprocal relationship with labour it is ultimately best understood as the consequence rather than the cause of alienated labour. The state of estrangement between labour and private property is developed, historically and conceptually, to a process of active alienation of labour from itself.

At the level of first-order mediation Marx puts at the centre productive activity. At the level of second-order mediation he puts at the centre, correspondingly, alienated labour.

The Contradictions of Private Property

In the 1844 Manuscripts ‘labour’ is understood fairly broadly as activity enforced on the immediate producers by external constraints, such as the social division of labour and the rule of private property. It is understood also, more narrowly, when related to capital (‘stored up labour’) as ‘the subjective essence of private property‘. Important consequences follow from such a conceptualization.

The point is developed best in the second manuscript (which is passed over in silence by most commentators, but which is crucial to Marx’s whole argument), and in a couple of closely related comments on it from the beginning of the third manuscript. [17] Consider first the following highly dialectical exposition of the private property relationship:

The relationship {Das Verhältnis] of private property contains latently within itself the relationship of private property as labour, the relationship of private property as capital, and the connection {Beziehung} of these two terms to each other. On the one hand we have the production of human activity as labour, that is as an activity wholly alien to itself, to man, and to nature . . . the abstract existence of man as a mere work-man {Arbeitsmenschen} . . . on the other hand, the production of the object of human activity as capital – wherein all the natural and social specificity of the object is extinguished . . . in which the same capital stays the same in the most diverse natural and social instantiarions {Dasein}, totally indifferent to its actual content. This contradiction, driven to the limit, is necessarily the limit, the culmination, and the downfall of the whole system. [18]

In considering this passage we need first to attend to the term ‘Verhältnis‘ (relationship), Bertell Ollman (in his book Alienation) has already drawn our attention to the central role of this term in Marx’s work, He claims that within such a relationship each ‘factor’ internalizes the relationship itself such that if the latter alters ‘the factor itself alters; it becomes something else’. On this view, Oilman continues, interaction is, more properly speaking, ‘inneraction’ because the factors form an organic whole. [19]

Ollman also explains that in discussion of such a system of ‘internal relations’ it is possible for any term to extend its reference beyond its ‘core’ to related moments and even the whole. With our passage in mind he says: ‘Perhaps the major service performed by Marx’s conception of private property is as a meeting-place for various strands in his thinking’; it is a relation ‘which contains many others’. [20]

It is also interesting to note the Hegelian origins of this term ‘Verhältnis‘. M.J. Petry explains that Hegel employs the cognate term Verhalten ‘to refer to a relationship, one factor of which tends to be predominate or to take the initiative’. [21] Gillian Rose goes further. She says that for Hegel something in the condition of relation (Verhältnis) subordinates its object to itself. [22]

Of course, we cannot be sure that Marx used this common term [23] in the same way as Hegel. None the less, when Marx speaks of ‘Das Verhältnis des Privateigentums‘ (the private property relation), he may well have in mind the sort of relationship in which each side develops itself only through the subordination of its ‘other’, which always remains in some sense a ‘barrier’ it must set itself to incorporate.

Let us see how Marx explains in the passage above the transformation of productive activity brought about through ‘the relationship of private property’.

At the level of first-order mediation we are concerned with ‘human activity’ and its ‘object’, but these are now related within the second-order mediations, summarized as the private property system, such that the first is constituted ‘as labour’, an activity ‘wholly alien to itself’, while the second is now held ‘as capital’ over against the labourer. Their participation in the relationship of private property changes the nature both of activity and its object. Furthermore, they now stand in a relation of mutual opposition; but this opposition is itself a relationship, in which each defines itself through exclusion from its other.

Marx goes on to explain that this contradiction emerges in all its purity only with the full development of the private property system. Earlier, historically specific distinctions existed both in forms of property-holding and in the sites of labour. Labour had ‘not yet reached the stage of indifference to its content’; [24] but now it is merely a ‘source of livelihood’ and as such the worker has no genuine identification with the work as it is determinate, a specific job. Liberated from all traditional ties to. a foreordained occupation, the ‘free worker’ of the industrial revoluton is a labour-power machine to be slotted into any job as required, subject to the needs only of capital accumulation. Likewise, while landed property still existed apart from industrial capital, it was still ‘afflicted with local and political prejudices’. [25] Marx gives a graphic description of the ideological battles fought by the representatives of movable property and immovable property (‘this distinction is not rooted in the nature of things’, he says, ‘it is a historical distinction’ [26]); and the subsequent development ‘results in the necessary victory of the capitalist over the landowner – that is to say, of developed over underdeveloped, immature private property – just as in general, movement must triumph over immobility, open selfconscious baseness over hidden unconscious baseness, cupidity over self-indulgence, the avowedly restless, adroit self-interest of enlightenment over the parochial wordly-wise respectable, idle and fantastic self-interest of superstition, and money over the other forms of private property.’ [27]

At all events, the upshot of the development of the system of private property is a pure contradiction between two poles: Labour (‘indifferent to its content’) and capital (likewise ‘indifferent to its real content’). The two terms (opposed and united) of the property relationship, labour and its object, the propertyless and the propertied, were previously chained together in particularized fixed units. Now, each side has become free to move and has attained abstractly universal form; both enter into a systematic totality, and become posited by the private property relationship itself.

Marx notices that the real history of private property is paralleled by the development of the theory of political economy. He says that the real process ‘repeats itself in the scientific analysis of the subjective essence of private property, labour. Labour appears at first only as agricultural labour, but then asserts itself as labour in general’. [28] Marx draws two conclusions. It is only with the victory of industrial capital ‘that private property can complete its domination over man and become, in its most general form, a world historical power’; [29] and ‘only when labour is grasped as the essence of private property can this economic process be analysed in its actual specificity’. [30]

This contradictory unity of labour and its other is important for Marx’s dialectical development of the downfall of the whole private property system as it is drawn out in this and other passages. For example, the communist movement has the historic task of overthrowing private property assigned to it by Marx: but what is the ground of this necessity? If it were simply a matter of a discrepancy between wealth and poverty, an opposition between those who own property and those who have nothing, this might lead to a ‘call for’ the rectification of this antithesis based on some criterion of social justice applied externally to the existing situation. Marx, however, is able to root the necessity of the communist movement in the contradiction internal to the development of modern private property. In so doing he has to reinterpret the antithesis of property and propertylessness as that of capital and labour, because only in the latter form does the possibility arise of understanding the relation in a suitably dynamic fashion. It is true that throughout the 1844 Manuscripts Marx more often speaks of private property than of capital, but it is perfectly clear that his reading of political economy had allowed him to grasp the central importance of the capital – labour contradiction. The following passage puts the matter beyond all doubt:

The antithesis {Gegensatz} between propertylessness and property, so long as it is not comprehended as the antithesis of labour and capital, still remains an indifferent antithesis, not grasped in its active connection, in its internal relation, not yet grasped as a contradiction {Widerspruch}. It can find expression in this first form even without the advanced development of private property (as in ancient Rome, Turkey, etc.). It does not yet appear as having been established by private property itself. But labour, the subjective essence of private property as exclusion of property, and capital, objective labour as exclusion of labour, constitute private property as its developed state of contradiction hence a dynamic relationship driving towards resolution {Auflösung}. [31]

Private property in ‘its developed state of contradiction’ is characterized by the simultaneous identity and exclusion of two poles, labour and capital. Hence there can be no harmonious synthesis – only a drive towards dissolution. This important feature of the dialectic of second-order mediation (private property and exchange) distinguishes it markedly from that of the first-order mediation.

In working on the object of production a reciprocal transformation occurs, at the level of first-order mediation. On the one hand the object becomes adapted to some specific human use, as means either of consumption or production. On the other hand, human productive power is extended and developed. Over time there results an ever-growing mediatedness of the relationship between social man and the rest of nature. Within this, the recalcitrance of the objective world to human use is actively overcome on the basis of theoretical knowledge and practical experience of its determinate potentials. The manner in which the object is appropriated depends upon the specificity of its relation to the relevant mode of affirmation of human power and enjoyment. [32]

But all this is perverted in the context of estranging second-order mediation. Private property constitutes a determinate mode of externality of man to himself and to the conditions of his activity. If nature is man’s ‘inorganic body’ because it is posited in his activity as its essential object, then to separate human productive power from its conditions of realization through constituting the latter as private property (whether or not the means of production are in fact monopolized in consequence) is already to constitute the object as external both to itself and to productive power. The latter is now thrown back (because of the contingency of this external relationship to the means of production) into an abstract ‘subjectivity’ estranged from its objective realm of expression. If the potentially monopolizable means of production are then in fact monopolized by a particular class of non-producers, the subjective moment too has to become external to itself since labour-power can now actualize itself in objective activity only in so far as it is alienated through the wage contract, becoming a commodity like any other. The aspiring producer thrown back into ‘subjectivity’ faces the purely objective conditions of his activity as absolutely recalcitrant to his appropriation because they are held as the private property of another. Hence this estrangement of the factors of production from each other makes necessary the active alienation of his powers to the other if he is to work at all. The ‘unity’ established through the wages system of the estranged moments is achieved through a ‘second alienation’ so to speak. This ‘negation of the negation’ makes possible the positive development of productive activity not by abolishing the property determinations excluding labour-power from its possession of the means of production but by re-establishing this unity within the private property relationship itself.

The important thing about the dialectic of private property is that the affirmative mediating process of objectification is now undercut by the estrangement of each side from the other; subject and object are condensed out as abstractly opposed spheres. The attempt to mediate these pure extremes, labour and capital, which ‘mutually exclude each other’, results, says Marx, in ‘hostile reciprocal opposition’ which reflects their contradictory unity in the ‘opposition of each to itself’. [33] On the side of capitalist: he cannot accumulate capital except through appropriating labour, yet the wages paid out represent a sacrifice of his capital. On the other side: the labourer cannot gain a livelihood except by treating his labour-power as his ‘capital’, a resource to be alienated through commodity exchange to the owner of the means of production (see figure 3).


What precisely is the reason for this? Each side is posited purely negatively against the other as everything which it is not. There is no mutually supportive interpenetration of opposites (as in the positive sense the difference between the sexes has in the need of each for the other): there is mutual repulsion within the exploitative relationship of private property. The mediations that give room for this relation to develop itself (wages, profit, etc.) establish the identity of each with its other only because each moment internalizes the contradictory unity in itself. To use the language of Capital: the private property relation as capital appears in the distinction between constant capital and variable capital; the private property relation as labour appears in the oppression of living labour by dead labour. In the language of 1844 Marx defines labour as ‘the subjective essence of private property as exclusion of property’ and capital as ‘objective labour as exclusion of labour’. No matter how highly mediated the relationship of private property becomes, at bottom labour and capital remain as untransformed extremes. Hence Marx’s prediction of a clash of mutual contradictions precipitating a collapse of the system.

This takes him way beyond his sources in classical political economy (even that which reflects the full development of modern industry in prioritizing productive labour) because such political economy mirrors the process of objectification in alienated form. When Smith traces wealth to labour, he traces the bourgeois form of wealth to its origin in value-producing labour. The first-order mediations are grasped through the prism of the estranging second-order mediation (private property).

In a very suggestive comparison, Marx, following Engels, says of Smith that he was ‘the Luther of political economy’. [34] Just as Luther attacked external religiosity in the form of fetish-worshipping, priests, ritual, churches etc., in order to implant God all the more firmly in the hearts of the religious, so Smith mocked the mercantilists’ illusions about gold and other external forms of property, in order to put labour as such all the more firmly under the category of property as the inner essence of wealth, that is, of value. However, this political economy cannot conceptualize the matter in a critical way because it takes property in all factors of production for granted. It therefore sees the social synthesis achieved only through money, wages and the market.

In spite of its advance from the ‘being’ of wealth to its ‘becoming’, the standpoint of classical political economy is thus not that of productive activity as such, but of this activity only as it is determined within the private property system as productive labour (‘an activity alien to itself’).

On the one hand political economy has the merit of turning the spotlight from the merely objective form of wealth to the human subject creating it. Thus Marx says that only ‘the political economy which acknowledged labour as its principle – Adam Smith – and which therefore no longer looked upon private property as a mere condition external to man . . . has to be regarded . . . as a product . . . of the real movement of private property – as a product of modern industry . . .’. [35] On the other hand political economy, in conceptualizing labour as the subjective essence of wealth, at the same time absolutizes these alienating mediations. But as a result man is brought within the orbit of private property, just as with Luther he is brought within the orbit of religion’, Marx points out.

Under the semblance of recognizing man, the political economy whose principle is labour rather carries to its logical conclusion the denial of man since man himself no longer stands in an external relation of tension to the external substance of private property, but has himself become this tense essence of private property. [36]

The meaning of the shift from external tension to tense essence in political economy is easily comprehended if we remember that we developed above the real dialectic of (a) ‘mutual exclusion’; (b) ‘opposition of each to itself’; and (c) ‘hostile reciprocal opposition’.

Political economy makes labour its principle, but since this labour is itself a determination of private property it is not productive activity organically united with its object and recognizing itself in its product, at home with itself in its activity; it is labour as the ‘tense essence’ of private property, it is an alienating mediator producing the product as loss of the object, activity as hateful, not as self-fulfilment but merely a source of livelihood.

Political economy capitulates to this reality because it does not problematize the private property system itself. For political economy, productive activity is necessarily labour, a determination of private property itself; hence the benefits of productive activity naturally accrue to private property. Political economy endorses this contradiction. Its principle (labour) is a category which refers us implicitly to productive activity itself, but this activity is estranged from itself, in contradiction with itself. Its principle, says Marx, is ‘the principle of this rupture’, hence a contradictory principle, the consequences of which ramify throughout the system. [37]

By contrast, Marx grasps the situation as one of labour’s self-alienation in and through private property. Only if labour is grasped as the overriding moment in the alienated labour/private property complex can the conditions of a real transcendence of estrangement be established. Grounded in the alienation of labour, the immanent movement of private property necessarily produces ‘its own grave diggers’ (in the famous phrase of the Communist Manifesto). But in the dialectical opposition of private property and alienated labour the principal aspect of the contradiction then becomes the latter; hence Marx says that the fall of wage-labour and private property – ‘identical’ [38] expressions of estrangement – takes place ‘in the political form of the emancipation of the workers‘. [39]

Later in the year 1844 Marx supplements this analysis of the contradictions while composing The Holy Family (a critique mounted against the Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer). He argues as follows:

Private property as private property, as wealth, is compelled to maintain itself, and thereby its opposite, the proletariat, in existence . . . The proletariat, on the contrary, is compelled as proletariat to abolish itself and thereby its opposite, private property, which determines its existence, and which makes it proletariat. It is the negative side of the antithesis, its restlessness within its very self, dissolved and self-dissolving private property . . . Indeed private property drives itself in its economic movement towards its own dissolution, but only through a development which does not depend on it, which is unconscious and which takes place against the will of private property by the very nature of things, only inasmuch as it produces the proletariat as proletariat . . . [40]

The proletarian revolution is itself necessarily only a moment of transition. The content of the movement reveals itself as the transformation of the whole society. When the proletariat is victorious, it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then the proletariat disappears as well as the opposite which determines it, private property. [41]

The next chapter will investigate the significance of this victory, that is to say, Marx’s understanding of communism.


In and through the private property system labour is separated from its object. This state of estrangement develops into a process of active alienation of labour from itself, when private property becomes posited as capital, as the product of alienated labour. The condition (private property as the ground of estrangement) becomes the conditioned (private property as the result of alienated labour). The presupposition (mutual exclusion of labour and its object) of the private property relationship becomes posited by the dialectic of the system itself (as a contradictory unity).

Classical political economy grasps labour as the subjective essence of private property; but since it absolutizes the system of second-order mediation (conflating it with the first-order level) it identifies itself with the standpoint of alienating mediation (labour).

In Marx’s view, the project of superseding alienation is grounded in the contradictory development of private property itself. It takes political form as the revolt of the proletariat against private property; but the proletariat overcomes this its other only by abolishing itself as proletariat at the same time.

1 Werke Eb., 520; C.W.3, 279-80; E.W., 331-2.

2 Dirk Struik, in the introduction to his edition of the 1844 Mss (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, New York, 1964), states: ‘But the whole tenor leads to Man’s conclusion of the priority of property’ (p. 45). In a private communication he says that this was a slip. The text meant is ‘the priority of alienated labour’.

3 Werke Eb., 521; C.W.3, 281; E.W., 333.

4 Werke Eb., 512; C.W.3, 272; E.W., 324.

5 Werke Eb., 520; C.W.3, 280; E.W., 332. Proudhon in What is Property? (1841) says ‘Property is Theft’.

6 Werke Eb., 523; C.W.3, 283; E.W., 335.

7 Werke Eb., 484, 529; C.W.3,, 247, 289; E.W., 295, 341. See Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), ed. 8, Cannan, Chicago, 1976, vol. 1, p. 351.

8 Werke Eb., 505; C.W.3, 266; E.W., 318.

9 Werke Eb., 506; C.W.3, 267; E.W., 319.

10 Werke Eb., 484; C.W.3, 247; E.W., 295.

11 Werke Eb., 506; C.W.3, 266; E.W., 318.

12 We have forgotten… that cash-payment is not the sole relationship of human beings. . Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, London, 1843, p. 198. This passage is quoted by Engels in his review of Past and Present published by A. Ruge and Marx in their Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Paris, 1844 (see C.W.3, 451). Evidently it was well known to Marx and Engels.

13 C.W.6, 487.

14 Werke Eb., 554; C.W.3, 314; E.W., 366.

15 Werke Eb., 528; C.W.3, 280; E.W., 392.

16 It is not surprising that commentators of an analytical rather than dialectical turn of mind prove unable to comprehend the interchanges of these determinations. The crucial passage is actually misquoted by Richard Schacht, Alienation, London, 1971, when he says that Marx ‘contends that the dominance of the institution of private property “is the basis and cause of alienated labour”, and thus also of the alienation of the product’ (p. 108). In a private communication he admits that ‘is’ should have been outside the quotation from Marx. However, he defends his interpretation against the translation provided by Bottomore who gives: ‘although private property appears to be the basis and cause of alienated labour, it is rather a consequence of the latter’ (Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. T.B. Bottomore, London, 1963, p. 131). The German is: ‘wenn das Privateigentum als Grund, als Ursache der entäusserten Arbeit ersheint, er vielmehr eine Konsequenz derselben ist … ‘ Schacht suggests an accurate reading is: ‘if private property appears as the ground, the basis of alienated labour, it is much more a consequence . . . ‘ In his book Schacht has to face the fact that just before the contested paragraph Marx writes: ‘Private property is therefore the product, the necessary result, of alienated labour, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself. In a footnote (n. 17 on p. 108) Schacht comments on this: ‘But here he is thinking of the accumulation of possessions and capital, rather than of the institution of private property.’ But Marx clearly sees the institution itself as coming to depend upon alienated labour. To view the capital relation as working within a pre-existing institution reifies the living social relation, instead of seeing it as reproduced by social practice, as the conditioned rather than the condition.

17 All we have of the second manuscript is pp. 40-3. The first two passages (pp. 1-3) of the third manuscript are further notes by Marx to pp. 36 and 39 of the second manuscript. All these passages are therefore closely related. Werke Eb., 523-33; C.W.3, 283-94.

18 Werke Eb., 524-5; C.W.3, 285; E.W., 336. NB: ‘object of activity’ is mistakenly rendered in E.W. as ‘object of labour’.

19 Bertell Ollman, Alienation, Cambridge, 1971, pp. 15, 17.

20 Ibid., pp. 164, 292 n.21.

21 See the introduction to Petry’s translation of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, 3 vols, London, 1970, vol. 1, p. 169.

22 G. Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, London, 1981, p. 83. Hegel says that when the will is truly free it ‘is released from every tie {Verhältnis} of dependence on anything else’. ‘Its object is itself and so not an “other” or a barrier to he overcome.’ (P.R., para. 22-23). Later he says: ‘The moral point of view is that of relation { }, of ought-to-be {Sollen}, or demand (P.R., para. 108).

23 Adelung notes that it is often ‘nothing more than the factotum of classroom philosophers, who employ it in the purveyance of turgid and confused concepts’ quoted by Petry, Philosophy of Nature, p. 170. Incidentally, in Das Kapital Marx speaks of ‘das Kapitalverhältnis’ (Werke Band 23, p. 601.

24 Werke Eb., 526; C.W.3, 286; E.W., 337.

25 Werke Eb., 528-9; C.W.3, 288.

26 Werke Eb., 525; C.W.3, 285.

27 Werke Eb., 528; C.W.3, 288. Reading such lines one can hardly forbear thinking of Hegel’s Phenomenology, where, in the chapter on ‘Self-Estranged Spirit’, the struggle of the noble and base consciousness, of enlightenment and superstition, is played out. Marx does not refer here to this material, although he does later on, and his sources are drawn not from the evidence of literature – Hegel uses Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew – but of economists, jurists and historians.

28 Werke Eb., 533; C.W.3, 293; E.W., 344. Marx’s discussion, in the Introduction of 1857 to his Grundrisse, of labour as ‘indifferent’ and as ‘labour in general’ is well known (Grundrisse, trans. M. Nicolaus, Harmondsworth, 1973, p. 104); here we see three ideas are present already in his first economic studies.

29 Werke Eb., 533, C.W.3, 293; E.W., 344.

30 Werke Eb., 557; C.W.3, 317; E.W., 369.

31 Werke Eb., 533; C.W.3, 292-4; E.W., 345.

32 Werke Eb., 541, 562-3; C.W.3, 301, 322; E.W., 352-3, 375.

33 Werke Eb., 529; C.W.3, 289; E.W., 341. This recalls a figure of Hegelian dialectic, whose abstract character is attacked by Marx in Poverty of Philosophy (1847), chapter 2, section 1: ‘The yes becoming no, the no becoming yes, the yes becoming both yes and no, the no becoming both no and yes . . .’; see C.W.6, 164.

34 Werke Eb., 530; C.W.3, 290; E.W., 342.

35 Werke Eb., 530; C.W.3, 290; E.W., 341.

36 Werke Eb., 530-1; C.W.3, 291.

37 Werke Eb., 531; C.W.3, 292.

38 Werke Eb., 520; C.W.3, 280; E.W., 332.

39 Werke Eb., 521; C.W.3, 280; E.W., 333.

40 C.W.4, 35-6.

41 C.W.4, 36.

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